Each spring students from the course Crime, Media and Justice at Saint Joseph’s University travel about 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia to Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution Graterford, the state’s oldest maximum-security prison and a maze of concrete and steel that houses some 3,000 men. There, in the prison’s basement visiting room, a radical act of trust and learning takes place. Students from a private, liberal arts college and men sentenced to die in prison spend the afternoon learning from each other.
This essay, coauthored by a professor and an educator and facilitator who has been incarcerated since the age of 18, examines the meetings through the lens of a “pedagogy of discomfort.” The piece includes excerpts from audio reflections from some of the Saint Joseph’s students and the “inside” coauthor, written reflections from some of the men inside, and the authors’ narrative descriptions of the meetings. These provide rich illustrations of the pedagogical impact of confronting uncomfortable emotions—including anxiety, fear, anger, guilt—that arise from coming face-to-face with long-internalized stereotypes.
The visit is meant to create a certain amount of discomfort for students, to elicit emotions that can be pulled apart and interrogated. The best way to learn about prisons and narratives of crime and punishment is to sit and talk with people who live in prison; not simply tour a prison, but to hear the stories of those who live mass incarceration and be among family members and friends of incarcerated men. As one inside participant, Saadiq Palmer, wrote, “Textbooks and walk-throughs aren’t shit!” These discussions stand in contrast to the media narratives that students study throughout the semester, eliciting, as one student said, “messy emotions.” A pedagogy of discomfort calls on students and educators to confront those emotions, “bear witness,” and act.
As coauthor Felix Rosado, also known as Phill, writes, this gathering of people who are never supposed to meet—people from inside and outside the prison walls—is “radical.” All of us converge in the visiting room to “unlearn” as well as to learn. We arrive as spectators and leave witnesses.
This essay is intended for educators, both in formal institutions such as universities but also in community settings that focus on popular education, and others interested in strategies and practical ways of engaging in public conversations about social justice issues that are clouded by harmful mainstream narratives; that is to say, practically every social justice issue, from mass incarceration to immigration to homelessness.
The essay contains the full names of inside participants at their request. The prison system anonymizes incarcerated people, replacing their names with numbers, and limits their ability to construct a public identity. For example, audio and video recording equipment is not allowed to be brought into Pennsylvania prisons, except for a few, very rare instances. An audio interview with Phill, which appears in the essay, was recorded over the phone. The public narrative of a person who is incarcerated usually ends with their conviction, leaving the media coverage of their arrest, trial, and conviction as their public story. Only the first names of students appear in the essay, which was agreed to at the beginning of the course.
Very different paths bring us to Graterford’s visiting room, a maze-like space with low ceilings and long rows of chairs welded together so they can’t be moved. This is where men in “general population,” those not in restrictive units or solitary confinement, meet with their families and friends. A bank of vending machines lines one wall and offers the only food available during a visit; everything from the usual vending machine fare of chips and sodas to chicken wings, burgers, and ham sandwiches all wrapped in plastic. Guards stand on a raised platform, watching everyone.
The “outside” participants, media production students from Saint Joseph’s, are enrolled in a course called Crime, Media and Justice, during which they critically examine narratives of crime and punishment and the impact those stories have had on public policy. They read about the “Central Park Five,” for example, a group of teenage African American and Latino men wrongly convicted of rape in a Manhattan courtroom, but convicted long before that in the New York media (Burns 2012). They study the “super-predator” narrative that gained prominence in criminal justice policy circles and media accounts during the “tough on crime” era of the 1990s. Scholars and policy makers buttressed their push for more severe sentences on the “moral poverty” of mostly “inner city” youths, who, they argued, were born with criminal predilections (Bennett, Dilulio, and Walters 1996). These kinds of media narratives, which persist today, one student noted in their reflection, “evoked fear up until the day I shook hands with these men” at Graterford.
Most of the “inside” participants are members of Right to Redemption, a group that began inside Graterford several years ago as criminal justice reform efforts began to converge with social movements focused on racism, poverty, and police brutality and buoyed by the work of scholars, writers, and activists like Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson (Alexander 2010; Stevenson 2014). These men were all convicted of homicide and have all been in prison at least 15 years, most 20 years or more. Most were convicted amid the “tough on crime” fervor. Inside they are workshop facilitators, prison hospice volunteers, peer support specialists, mentors, writers, and poets. The group “calls on forces of goodwill everywhere to come together, consolidate, and champion the human right to redemption and dignity in any case or circumstance” (Right to Redemption n.d.).
Most college students who go to prisons for educational purposes don’t meet in visiting rooms. We do it this way for a couple of reasons. Many prisons offer formal classroom settings where college students engage in assigned course material and discussions with incarcerated students enrolled in the same course. Academic concepts, therefore, are the primary focus, not interpersonal relationships. Students, both inside and outside, are often dissuaded from digging too deeply into personal histories. In contrast, participants in our visits are encouraged to talk about their lives with one another. A mutual understanding of each other, not a mastery of academic material, is the goal. Back on campus, inside participants have called into our class meetings and we have had relatives and supporters of the men visit our classroom to add even more perspective on their lives before and during incarceration.
Spending time in a prison visiting room also helps students better understand the collateral consequences of incarceration. They meet family members who have traveled long distances to spend a few hours with a loved one. They watch fathers hold their young children and try to teach them a few life lessons before kissing them goodbye until the next time.
Here’s how we got to the visiting room:
I'm walking down the long corridor with extra pep on my way to the visit room, the same visit room I've been going to a few times a month to see family, friends, and lawyers for 23 years. But this is different. Four others and I are meeting with six students and their professor to have “class” in the unlikeliest of settings. I can't tell if any of the others have arrived or if I'm first. Coming from different cell blocks, we lack control over how fast or slow our cell numbers get called over the intercom with the coveted word “visit” attached to the end. This morning mine was hollered at around 11.
I arrive and go down the stairs after showing my pass and ID to COs [corrections officers] at four different checkpoints along the way. I proceed through the same motions I've learned to mindlessly execute over a thousand times. I remove my brown, state-issued boots, pants, and shirt. I put my boots back on to not dirty my socks and hang my shirt and pants on a hook next to a few dozen other sets dangling like lifeless bodies against the walls. When the CO says “next man,” I move through the gate to the next station. Here's where I detach—further. Following one order at a time, I remove my boots, socks, t-shirt, underwear and go through the routine of movements and exposures I'll never get used to. Once it's over he tosses me a rolled up wrinkled 2x jumpsuit. I dress and cross over to the next station. One more to go. I zipper up, tie my boots, take one quick glance in the mirror, and exit the strip room, never fast enough.
“Are we allowed to ask what they did?” a student asked me during the 40-minute drive to Graterford. Seven of us were in the van and we had just left a coffee shop on campus, our appointed meeting spot. None of them had been to a prison before. They all tell me that they had never met anyone who had been to prison (at least that they knew of), much less someone who was serving life without parole for a murder conviction. In Pennsylvania, life means life. There is no parole. The men we were on our way to meet—most in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who had been there since their late teens and early 20s—were sentenced to die inside.
“Up to you,” I replied. No conversation was out of bounds, I told them. A few of the students, I found out later, already knew the stories of some of the men. Google told them. They found newspaper articles detailing crimes, arrests, and trials using just the man’s name and a few guesses about location and time frame.
The van ride takes us through the wealthy suburbs that surround our campus into rural Pennsylvania. Graterford is across the road from a sheep farm and used to be a massive working farm itself. The students are silent for most of the ride. Many would talk later about how nervous they were since the day they heard, during the first week of class, that they would be visiting a state prison.
“My heart was racing, my breath short, my hands shaking,” Larissa, a senior, recounted in her reflection. “It wasn’t until we pulled up to the prison gates that I realized something. I realized that it wasn’t the idea of meeting a group of murderers that made me so nervous. Rather I was nervous about what this group would think of me.”
Our route to Graterford requires us to drive along its 30-foot-high concrete wall for a half mile before parking. Just about everything has to stay in the van. No phones, no bags, no money. Only a state-issued form of identification and the inmate number you are required to memorize, or, as many students do, write on your hand. The guard at the front desk requires an inmate number. Names are meaningless. After a 30-minute wait, an inmate’s last name is called and the student(s) on that man’s visiting list proceed through a security check that includes a metal detector, the patting of pockets, and the swabbing of hands to make sure no one had been recently handling illegal narcotics. Through security, we congregate near a door at the top of stairs. “Open it up,” a guard shouts. A loud buzz, the door opens, and we proceed down the stairwell and into the visiting room.
Professor Mike, the students, and one of my peers are sitting and chatting. I turn in my pass and ID to the sergeant and quickly join the group with a smile. Fast handshakes and intros ensue before I have a seat. We all kick it until the rest of the guys make it down. Normal small talk. Or is it? After all, what's normal about a visiting room down in a prison basement? For brief, hard-earned moments, concrete, steel, and miles are breached, and replaced by omnipresent camera lenses and piercing eyes. How real can one really be?
Once all are present and seated, I start my facilitation, something I've been doing in groups for over a decade, but never here. Never like this. We're sitting in two rows of connected seats facing each other, every few minutes interrupted by people walking in between to get by or a two-year-old pushing a Tonka truck, screaming “vrrrmmm, vrrrrrmmmmm!” Conversation is buzzing all around us—indistinct chatter representing excitement, joy, sadness, anger, all the emotions, all in one space. Babies, toddlers, teens, nanas. Moms, other halves, sisters, brothers. Men in reddish-brown jumpsuits. Outside and inside worlds collide in this particular—and peculiar—space many of us on the inside call the “dance floor.”
After a few introductory remarks, I initiate a check-in round: name where your ideas or images of prison before ever stepping into one came from. My first image was that prisons are colorless, excruciatingly slow, and dead silent, based on a '70s Clint Eastwood flick, Escape from Alcatraz, I saw in the '80s as a boy. Most of the inside men referred to movies from back in the day, like Penitentiary or Blood In, Blood Out, or firsthand accounts told to them by released neighbors or family members. Just about everyone from the outside talked about Oz or Orange Is the New Black, or any number of the endless stream of prison “reality” shows on cable.
First outlined by Megan Boler in the book Feeling Power (1999), a pedagogy of discomfort requires us to “see differently” and to interrogate our “most cherished beliefs and assumptions.” We are asked to critically interrogate our most closely held values, which typically correspond to those held by a “dominant culture of the historical moment,” which in the United States has been a white patriarchy (179). The stereotypes and narratives that often emerge from the dominant culture—from the “welfare mom” to the “super-predator”—are comforting to that culture’s privileged members, providing a clarity that often precludes deep critical inquiry. These beliefs and assumptions mute ambiguity, Boler argues, and the introduction of ambiguity and dissonance often prompts deep cognitive and physical discomfort—shame, anxiety, anger—that, in turn, provides an opportunity to “bear witness” and act to embrace a “more ambiguous and flexible sense of self” (176).
The students who have just walked into the Graterford visiting room are products of that dominant culture. All identify as white and readily admit that their lives have been defined by material and ideological comfort. In their reflections, most said that they rarely questioned narratives of crime and punishment they heard on the news or saw in movies that told them who and what to fear. One student had relatives who were police officers, but the only contact with the criminal justice system for most was as a friend or a family member of a victim or as a victim themselves. “I felt guilty because of my innocence,” one student, Corey, said in his reflection.
Bearing witness and action are integral to this approach, which asks us to move past simple empathy and “confession.” Boler challenges educators and students to transcend “the comfortable distance of spectating,” a culturally learned way of seeing that avoids ambiguity and requires no moral responsibility. In contrast, witnessing is a process in which we do not have the luxury of “seeing a static truth or fixed certainty” (Boler 1999, 186). Spectating signifies privilege, while witnessing requires action.
The next three sections detail three critical aspects of the pedagogy of discomfort and how they played out in the meeting at Graterford and the reflections that followed.
We split into three smaller groups, still in the same immovable seats, just turning our bodies left or right. In our groups, something quite revolutionary begins to unfold. Stereotypes shatter, walls come crumbling down. Jumpsuits, jeans, state boots, or sneaks—it all stops mattering. We’re human beings, being human. At some point it dawns on each of us: They’re not preppy, entitled rich kids. They’re not “criminals.” We’re each complex, dynamic, rich in character and story. Radical education. This isn’t supposed to happen. The wall is not only there to keep certain people in, but to keep everyone else out.
We break, one group at a time, to grab lunch at the vending machines. There’s a yellow and black caution strip on the floor about five feet from the machines. Those of us with “D.O.C.” [Department of Corrections] stamped on our clothes can’t cross. We look, point, and say this or that sandwich, bag of chips, or candy bar right there. While we maneuver the obstacles to having lunch, we chat about lighter topics: favorite foods, TV shows, books, sports teams. We shuffle from machines to microwaves to a station where all food must be removed from wrappers and dumped onto paper plates. Back at our seats, we break bread, a timeless community-building practice that crosses all boundaries.
The mass media mostly teach us that people in prison are to be feared. That is certainly sometimes true, but it is never “the truth.” For most of us, ambiguity is deeply discomforting. It is far easier to embrace reductive binaries. A foundational component of the pedagogy of discomfort (and most forms of critical inquiry) is the interrogation of binaries, which requires “emotional labor” (Boler and Zembylas 2003); pulling apart things like “guilt” and “innocence,” “friend” and “enemy,” and “good” and “bad” requires work.
Student reflections consistently reveal that the image of someone in prison, in this case a “murderer,” quickly became problematic as ambiguity was introduced through their meetings with the men at Graterford. In his reflection, Corey noted that his initial emotions of anxiety and fear transformed into “warmth” for the men he met during the visit. While the warmth remained as he recorded his reflection a few days later, he noted that he also felt shame.
“I felt ashamed that I subconsciously judged people before I met them. My chagrin overwhelmed me because I pride myself on never judging someone before meeting them. . . . All the preconceptions from Spike TV shows or news channels were truly dismantled as fallacies,” he said.
In this clip, Corey describes meeting Phill (Felix Rosado) for the first time:
The inside participants felt the weight of their roles as representatives of incarcerated men more widely. Many believed that they were personally responsible for dismantling the stereotypes about incarcerated men and women, to show the students that they were more than the worst thing they had ever done. Bobby Labar, who has been incarcerated more than 20 years, since age 18, wrote:
My mindset going into the visit was to help eliminate the debilitating labels society has placed on people who are incarcerated. I expected most students who came in to have really bad ideas of who I was. On my part, there was the fear of not being accepted by these students. Also, I had concerns if I could correctly humanize the people who are incarcerated because of long-held stereotypes of what people think of “criminals.”
Richie, a senior, was perhaps the most apprehensive about the visit. He had been the victim of an assault and was hospitalized during his time in college. The person who attacked him, Richie says, only received two months in jail. Bobby was the first inside participant Richie met at Graterford.
Here is part of Richie’s audio reflection:
Boler warns us not to become comfortable in merely recognizing these “ah-hah!” moments when culturally salient binaries are identified as such and ambiguity is introduced into one’s thinking. These are important opportunities for self-reflection, but one can quickly slip back into a sort of moral comfort zone, basking in the unexpected “warmth” that Corey talks about or the camaraderie that Richie felt with Bobby during the visit. In many ways, this is passive empathy and marks the beginning of a new stage in a pedagogy that embraces discomfort—“bearing witness” to that change in emotions.
“Witnessing” has long been a foundational component of critical pedagogy. In his groundbreaking work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire calls on us all “to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled” (1970, 39). Bearing witness means to transcend our own personal experience, which, bell hooks writes, “keeps us from reaching the mountain top” (1994, 11).
“Bearing witness” is more than seeing. Simple “spectating” allows us to maintain a distance between ourselves and others. Oppression and injustice become spectacles, events that require no reaction or moral responsibility. Bearing witness, however, is seeing with strings attached. As Phill notes in his reflection, “It’s clear to us all that this was more than a feel-good event. There’s urgency here. Lives are at stake.”
Bearing witness requires us to make sense of ambiguity, implicating us in a moral reckoning with what we have been taught and told and requiring emotional attention. Graterford’s visiting room is often very loud, as it was on the day we were there. Dozens of people occupy a small space, each having separate conversations requiring them to raise their voices above a variety of buzzers and bells, the constant sonic backdrop at Graterford. Attentive listening is uncomfortable and exhausting in this setting. But listening to stories and being “present” as they are told are the essential elements of bearing witness on our visit. Larissa notes the importance of listening in her reflection:
Bearing witness in a prison is, of course, a political act. Soon after the participants in the visits meet, they are required to not only interrogate the binaries propagated by cultural representations of crime, but to begin to untangle where they come from and why they exist. It requires us to collapse the distance and safety that spectating affords. Most importantly, bearing witness requires us to understand that spectating, or what Boler calls “habits of inattention,” is not simply passive and neutral—it impedes social change (Boler 1999, 186).
Taylor’s reflection exemplifies the “messy emotions” that come with bearing witness. Her best friend, David, was killed in a robbery, leaving Taylor, who identifies politically as “progressive” and is active on campus, particularly on “feminist issues,” in a political conundrum. It would be easiest for her to remain silent on criminal justice issues, to be a spectator. But the Graterford visit and specifically her conversations with Kareem Sampson and Arthur Wyche, both inside participants, complicated her political identity. It is clear that the experience shaped her own beliefs about crime and “criminals” and she uses language in her reflection that is political, for example the phrase “death by incarceration,” which is how many inside prison and their families and supporters refer to life without parole. That’s a consequence of bearing witness.
Taylor’s belief that Kareem and Arthur have a “right” to tell their stories to a parole board and her opposition to Pennsylvania’s mandatory life-without-parole sentences for homicide convictions are deeply political statements. Her reflection and experience embody the pedagogy of discomfort. She readily acknowledges that she was at best ambivalent about criminal justice reform and the narratives of people convicted of homicide before visiting Graterford. The visit began for her a process of seeing the criminal legal system differently, dispelling binaries and questioning how those binaries shaped laws and punishment. Her reflection also portends action—“questioning the way the system works.”
Action requires that we bring the evidence and ideas we gathered while bearing witness to a “public.” That public could be a media audience, as many of these students are budding filmmakers, journalists, and storytellers. Or it could be a much smaller public, perhaps their immediate family gathered around a table for dinner.
Bearing witness and learning to see differently can be seen as the gathering of evidence for perhaps the most important part of the pedagogy of discomfort—action. That action is not prescribed. Students need to decide their course of action for themselves, though the requirement of recording a reflection starts them down that path.
A few students voluntarily attended rallies hosted by organizations working toward parole eligibility for men and women serving death by incarceration, where they met, among other family members of incarcerated men and women, Phill’s mother. Students who have taken the class in past semesters were similarly moved to public action. At least one changed her academic path and decided to attend law school. Others have gone to work for nonprofits. But most were not as deliberate in their action.
Carly, who comes from a conservative family in a rural farming community in Pennsylvania, said in her reflection that her view of crime and incarcerated people had not “turned completely 180 degrees,” but that she promised herself that she would “question.”
Amber, however, is all in. Her experience at Graterford led her to attend a rally and “want to do everything I can to educate others about life without the chance of parole and our criminal justice system.”
Most of the inside participants agreed to meet with students in the hope that some sort of action would result. Charles Boyd, a seasoned facilitator who has been incarcerated for decades, anticipated some transformation. He and others wrote that they believed that the students were “the ones who will influence public policies that will shape what social justice looks like going forward . . . I went into the gathering anticipating the authentic transformation that could emerge by bringing people together from totally different worldviews.”
Action that stems from bearing witness motivates the inside participants as well. The men who participate see the sessions as far more than a chance to chat with college students. The sessions for them are an extension of the work they are already doing to bring attention to mass incarceration. For them, the visits are political as well as educational. Phill says, “We have an opportunity to transcend that wall and to come together and talk about what’s really going on in these places and who’s really locked inside them.” The visits provide the inside participants a way to exercise agency, particularly political agency, in an institution that is designed to strip away political power and enforce what has been described as a “civil death,” which includes the loss of voting rights (see, for example, Chin 2012).
In this audio excerpt recorded over the phone, Phill talks about how he frames the visits as opportunities to chip away at the “worst of the worst” narratives of those inside.
A pedagogy of discomfort does not embrace discomfort for discomfort’s sake. As Boler writes, it’s “about bodies, about particulars, about the ‘real’ material world we live in. Beliefs are ‘embodied habits,’ dispositions to act in a certain way in a given context” (1999, 196).
To be clear, students are not assessed on the extent to which they “transform,” if in fact they do at all. There is no “right” ideology. The goal is a different kind of “knowing” of the world and the arrival at some understanding of how our knowing may have changed as a result of the course. Wresting us all from a knowing of the world that is comfortable requires discomfort, a reckoning with our emotions and the morality of our spectating.
“Coming here today was a courageous act for all of us. Let's keep being brave,” I say as part of my closing remarks. We rise and slowly make our way to the sergeant's desk, still wanting to keep the conversations alive, burning, still wanting to build. We get our passes, IDs, visiting paperwork, distribute it among ourselves. Handshakes are longer this time, bro hugs, hugs, no longer strangers, no longer ideas or images, just humans being human.
One group becomes two again. One walks past the machines, the CO sitting by the exit, and up the steps; the other, back into the strip room to detach and go through those dreaded motions. But today I feel different than after a typical visit. Today is different. As the guys and I go through the stations, we recount moments and comments that stood out most. We’re speaking hope. It's an irony not lost on me, on any of us. We're speaking hope and inspiration in a place that, by design, is meant to squash any such rumblings.
Never in 20 years have I seen the visit room as anything other than a place to spend those few precious moments with loved ones who’d drive across the country if necessary to see me. But things are changing. People are changing. Spaces are changing. This change is only possible, though, with discomfort. We need a new pedagogy. One that provides space where we can confront our fears and be inspired to bear witness. And where better than in a prison basement?
Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
Bennett, William J., John J. Dilulio, and John P. Walters. 1996. Body Count: Moral Poverty . . . And How to Win America’s War Against Crime and Drugs. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Boler, Megan. 1999. Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. New York: Routledge.
Boler, Megan, and Michalinos Zembylas. 2003. “Discomforting Truths: The Emotional Terrain of Understanding Difference.” In Pedagogies of Difference: Rethinking Education for Social Change, edited by Peter Pericles Trifonas, 110–136. New York: Routledge.
Burns, Sarah. 2012. The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City’s Most Infamous Crimes. New York: Vintage.
Chin, Gabriel Jackson. 2012. “The New Civil Death: Rethinking Punishment in the Era of Mass Conviction.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 160: 1789.
Freire, Paolo. 1970. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.
hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.
Right to Redemption. n.d. "Home.” Accessed July 18, 2018. www.right2redemption.com.
Stevenson, Bryan. 2014. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Mercy. New York: Spiegel and Grau.