While policy makers and scholars often measure the success of prison education programs by quantitative outcomes such as recidivism and post-release employment, there is a gap in the literature with regard to how these programs facilitate community building, identity development, and agency. For the 159,000 people serving life sentences in the United States, and perhaps for all of those who are incarcerated, we need a new way of conceptualizing the purpose of education in prison. In this essay, Clint Smith reflects on his experience teaching creative writing in a Massachusetts state prison and questions how we might be able to create more holistic and humane educational infrastructures in incarcerated spaces, programs that move beyond instrumentalism and vocational preparation and instead toward cognitive liberation and a reclamation of human dignity.

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