To See the “Invisible”: Liberal Arts Prison Education in the Age of Racialized Mass Incarceration

Publication Date



Kerwin Kaye


American Studies (AMST)


English (United States)


This thesis investigates the effects of liberal arts prison education on incarcerated individuals in the current age of racialized mass incarceration. By drawing on sociological concepts, African American history, and interviews with professionals and former students from 11 liberal arts prison programs across the country, I argue that liberal arts prison education in the current era acts as a positive, anti-racist project. It does this, I contend, by upholding the human dignity of incarcerated African American students and enabling those students, through the development of empowering cognitive frameworks and practical tools, to improve their lives in prison. To make this argument, my introduction includes an abridged account of the rise of racialized mass incarceration and the corresponding changes in the political and academic discussions of prison education. In chapter one, I provide further background information for my data analysis by framing mass incarceration in the history of institutionalized racial oppression and anti-black racist ideology. At the end of chapter one, I briefly detail the methodology used for data collection, and chapters two and three analyze that empirical data. Chapter two argues that liberal arts prison programs create a humanizing environment in prisons that helps incarcerated African Americans resist dehumanizing racist ideologies and penal practices. Chapter three traces education as racial uplift throughout African American history and maintains that, in part because of the humanizing environment it generates, liberal arts education provides incarcerated individuals cognitive and practical tools and strategies that promote psychological empowerment. I further maintain that because of this psychological empowerment, liberal arts prison education helps students resist racial oppression more than it might perpetuate the current system of domination. Finally, in my conclusion I discuss how liberal arts prison education could improve and I acknowledge that these programs provide benefits for African Americans beyond what my thesis could discuss.

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