In the spring semester of 2012, I hopped in with two other graduate students to teach an introductory sociology course at Garden State Youth Correctional Facility through Princeton's Prison Teaching Initiative. I wrote two little pieces about that experience here and here. I took off last semester but am now back in the prison teaching the same course for a second time.
As with the last time I co-taught, we opened up the second lesson with discussing C Wright Mills' first chapter of The Sociological Imagination. Titled "The Promise," this chapter is famous amongst social scientists for its clarity and inspiration. It gives a sort of rallying cry for the discipline, encouraging the reader to view things in their wider historical and sociological context. A person's trouble of losing their job can only be fully understood when placed in the wider issue of unemployment, for instance. We must pay special attention to the tremors of history and remember that things exist in their place and time. It is only with the sociological imagination, in the end, that we can truly come to understand what happens to us in this world.
I always enjoy re-reading this chapter; it gives me a kind of thrill to share this motivational piece with others. But this time around, I found that my students really pushed back on Mills' argument. When discussing the example of unemployment, one of the students offered his opinion:
"Maybe those people who are unemployed, I think they're just plain lazy."
Heads nodded in approval.
"Get up and jus' get a job!"
More affirmations. Time and again, the students returned to the individual's role in the topic we were discussing.
"I get what Mills is saying," one of the other students told me after class, "but why do you guys take this stuff as the truth? I'm still a person! I still make decisions! My cuz, he's down and out 'cuz you know what? He dropped out of school!"
I must admit that it was difficult for me to fully take in comments like these. Here were eleven men, all but one of whom were black, who had found themselves doing time in a prison. Dressed in identical khaki prison scrubs, these were men who I saw as being the archetypical examples of people who might have found themselves on the wrong side of social structures: born in tough neighborhoods, ignored in terrible schools, these were the men who I thought would most come to appreciate the sociological imagination that took their trouble (time in the slammer) and placed it in a wider issue (the despicable incarceration rates of the United States that is fueled by inequality).
I brought my worries up in my carpool after class. These other teachers had gone in to a neighboring prison to teach English and had their own share of troubles with teaching a Shakespearean sonnet on their second day. But one of them raised a really fascinating point that has continued resonating in my mind since then.
Prison is meant to be a rehabilitative environment, one where an individual is able to improve his/her life. (I have strong words about the sham that is the "prison as rehabilitation" language used in the U.S. but I will save those for another time.) This other teacher pointed out, however, that the narratives used to rehabilitate inmates often emphasizes the individual. Only you can get yourself out of this, they are encouraged. It is through small choices that you make that you can come to get out and improve. Or maybe, take charge of your life: only you can do so.
These kinds of messages are drilled into their minds day in and day out. Individual choices, individual results, individual efforts: these are the things that both got them into prison and will help them get out. I see the effectiveness that may come from this kind of narrative, but I doubt that they are told about how poverty contributed to their incarceration. I doubt that they are shown the statistics of the gross racial inequality that exists in prisons. And I would be willing to bet that they aren't told how prisons are actually big money ventures, how every living body that goes into those cells brings extra bucks to somebody's pocket.
I wonder, then, if this teacher is on to something. Could the narratives of self-empowerment actually be at the root of some of this push back? And how dangerous might that be? It's easy for politicians to push the individual level because it means they would never have to address the bigger issues. It's easy for the narrative to be misused because, at the end of the day, it would just be your own fault.
I'm tempted to have the students re-read the chapter at the end of the semester. Would anything have changed by that point? Maybe Mills' "promise" does not hold for prison inmates.