Everyday Resistance Inside: Informal Education and Self-Cultivation

Art by Yusef Qualls-El, incarcerated artist at Macomb Correctional Facility.

This new project analyzes testimony gathered from incarcerated contributors to the Incarcerated Archive – an online archive of poetry, writing, and art by incarcerated people from prisons across Michigan. Despite rhetorical commitments to “rehabilitation,” the criminal justice system offers few opportunities for education or outlets for productive and meaningful activities for incarcerated individuals. Incarcerated individuals then, are faced with either accepting this as the status quo, or attempting to procure opportunities for self-cultivation (broadly understood) on their own.

In a co-authored article with scholar/activists Michael Brown and incarcerated juvenile lifer Fred Williams, we examine the ways that incarcerated individuals create opportunities for self-cultivation on their own (and, often, in opposition to the institution).

This research finds that incarcerated individuals engage in a variety of different informal practices, from organizing reading groups, to making art, to conducting poetry contests from their cells. They face obstacles like lack of access to reading materials and art supplies, and are thwarted by rules that restrict the number of people who can sit or stand together in the yard, and by the often abrupt movement of incarcerated people from one prison to another, disrupting the social networks they have established.

These practices can be understood as informal practices, and/or acts of everyday resistance. This article unearths ways that incarcerated individuals navigate the oppression and coercive nature of the prison; how seemingly benign rules and regulations in the prison pose obstacles to these informal practices; and highlights ways in which activists on the outside can better support the struggles of incarcerated people.