Today we look at the power of Participatory Action Research in public science. My guest is Michelle Fine. In the 1990s, she worked on a study called Changing Minds, which looked at the impact of college in a maximum-security prison. The research team comprised of women in and outside of prison.

For Michelle, participatory action research plays an important role in the struggle for social justice. It not only can change legislation, impact critical social theory, and mobilize popular opinion for educational justice; but seemingly small issues can also have deep and lasting implications.

Michelle Fine is a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York where she is a founding member of the Public Science Project.

Citation: Fine, Michelle, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 137, podcast audio, November 26, 2018.

Transcript, Translation, Resources:


Will Brehm  1:35
Michelle Fine, welcome to FreshEd.

Michelle Fine  1:38
Nice to be here.

Will Brehm  1:40
So, in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed what was called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. What did this law do?

Michelle Fine  1:51
Do, President Clinton was a democrat who, unfortunately, was also very pro-punishment of women on welfare, of men and women in prison, and ended up in many ways functioning internally as a fiscal conservative and a punitive policymaker when it came to law enforcement and the criminalization of young people of color and the denial of productive opportunities for young people of color, particularly those who were in the prison system. And so, one of the elements of that law was longer sentences, mandatory minimums but also a denial of what we call Pell Grants in the United States -which is federal support for college- a denial in Pell Grants to men and women in prison. Prior to that moment there were 350 College in Prison programs throughout the US and after Bill Clinton signed that law that number dropped to 8 because the federal funding disappeared.

Will Brehm  3:19
What was the logic behind such a bill that took away higher education from prisoners?

Michelle Fine  3:35
At the time it simply felt like another instantiation of, kind of, neoliberal policies that were mapped on to get-tough, punitive strategies for dealing with people of color, communities of color, low income folks. Now I have to say in the present moment, it feels like an early reflection of what we’re now witnessing on steroids. Which is a kind of hyper-assault on poor people and people living in poverty matched with a narrowing of state funding to support them but an increase in funding to contain, detain, deport, and punish people of color. So, it’s not really a small government strategy but it is a realignment of who is contained, who has opportunities and unfortunately a real privileging of those who are white, those with power, elites and a deep, deep containment and denial of opportunities to those who are poor, who are immigrant, and who are people of color. As you can see in the Trump administration much more vividly -and you can see in Europe- there is unfortunately an appetite among some white voters for this kind of punitive assault on people of color. And disproportionately in our prisons are people of color. Although increasingly white people are in our prisons as well. There’s just an assault on poor people. And in the US that doubles as an assault on people of color.

Will Brehm  5:30
So back in the 1990s after this law was enacted, how did prisoners respond? How did people in prison respond to losing Pell grants, to losing their ability to go to or receive higher education?

Michelle Fine  5:46
Yeah, that’s a good question. I have to say in some ways this is a very small issue and in other ways it illustrates deep historic and contemporary dynamics in the US and maybe globally as well. So, while I’m prepared to chat with you about the smallness of it. It’s very important for listeners to understand how deep the implications of this are. It’s kind of another sadistic act of state: To deny the most vulnerable people an opportunity to transform themselves and their communities. So, it’s economically not smart. It’s ethically assaultive. But it is a form of state sadism. So how did the prisoners respond? I was lucky enough to be working at maximum security prison for women in Westchester County, outside of New York City. And I knew some of the women who had been very much leaders in the prison and in the college program. These were women who were there as political prisoners from the days of the Weathermen and the Brinks robbery, if that’s a familiar story. So, I had been working with some of those women. They were get trying to get PhDs and they were also friends. So, I got to see firsthand the impact of the denial of Pell Grants within the prison. Within this women’s prison, when the Pell Grant stopped, all the other educational programs work kind of stunned and halted. So, there was an adult basic education, there was English as a Second Language, there was basically a high school equivalency program, and it’s like the lights dimmed. This prison is the only maximum-security prison for women in New York State. So that somebody from Colombia, South America, who lands at JFK airport with two ounces of cocaine in their backpack would have ended up at this prison as well. So, there are a number of Latin American women, women for whom English was a distant language, immersed in this prison. And so, all of those other programs come end the lights dimmed. Even the correction officers understood that by shutting down the college program, that the morale and the climate in the prison was going to shift. So very quickly, some of the women in the prison as I said, they were leaders, people like Kathy Boudin, Cheryl Wilkins, these are all women who are out now. Those two are professors at Columbia University. At the time they were inside, and they understood the devastating impact of this -what might seem small, policy decision had on the prison. So, they mobilized the superintendent who was quite supportive of the college program. And then they mobilized a bunch of us on the outside: women college presidents, religious leaders, local activists, people like myself, who were friends and also faculty at other universities and quickly formed a consortium of about 12 colleges to resurrect college in the prison. And so that consortium was built over about six months.

Will Brehm  9:53
And if the Pell Grants didn’t fund it, who did?

Michelle Fine  9:56
Yeah, that’s a good question. So, these colleges we’re kind of amazing. Some of the early ones were Catholic, Jesuit, others were private universities that had women presidents, and there were lots of public universities in the room, but we weren’t allowed to be out. We were kind of “in the closet” because there was a lot of state surveillance that no public dollars or commitments go to college in prison. So, we were all there, but we couldn’t be named. So there was, early on, a kind of beautiful circuit of solidarity that looked like noblesse oblige but it was much more a coalition of universities led by a woman named Regina Peruggi who at the time was president of Marymount Manhattan College, and she stood up and said I’ll grant the degree if we can put together a consortium of universities, each of whom contribute two faculty per semester and if we can kind of cobble a curriculum -and we decided on sociology as the major -couldn’t have a very elaborate curriculum- and if we can basically render porous the membranes of the prison. That is if we can have writers, and artists, and teachers, and librarians coming in and through. If we could have universities and colleges -like Sarah Lawrence, and Vassar, and Marymount Manhattan, and Mercy- align with a commitment to bringing college education to, in some cases, the most marginalized women in the country, that it would represent a deep commitment, a feminist commitment to education for all. So, it was really funded by those colleges and universities that folded the costs into their ongoing campaigns. A college like Sarah Lawrence, which is well known for encouraging writing in its students, they had a lot of writing courses at the prison. And when new students got accepted to Sarah Lawrence, they are sent the writing of the students and they were sent the writing including the writings of women in prison. So, in some places, it was really beautifully folded in. Having said that, we had to raise money for the pre-college program -what might be called ‘remedial’. That is for the skills-based program to get enough women up to speed academically to take advantage of the college. Because in order to get into the college program, the women had to pass the entrance exam to Marymount Manhattan, so we had to raise funds for the remedial program because most of these colleges and universities did not themselves have remedial programs.

Will Brehm  13:23
And prior to that, that was that was government funded?

Michelle Fine  13:26
That was not government funded. We just we had crazy -it was just good karma. You know, even when the early refugee crisis started in Europe, there was all that good karma -like people just showing up on the shores of Greece with boats, and inns, and food, and hospitality. That’s what it was like. It was just like people mobilized and said, “How do we raise money”? So, as it turns out, this prison is located in a very fancy part of Westchester where a lot of famous people live like Martha Stewart, like Glenn Close, the actress. So, Glenn Close, mobilized a group of actresses to take the stories of the women and perform them in Lincoln Center as a fundraiser. So, Marissa Tomei -I don’t know if these are names that will travel but Rosie Perez, Glenn Close -it was incredible. So formerly incarcerated women were there. These actresses presenting the stories and they raised money for four goals. And again, this was the women’s idea. 1) It paid for the pre-college program, but also 2) for a scholarship for the child of a woman in prison, 3) the scholarship for the child of a murder victim and 4) a scholarship for the child of a correction officer, because the women inside understood that unless those solidarities were sutured, that there would be enormous resentment against this college program.

Will Brehm  15:14
So, this program obviously was inspiring and, in some regards, very successful, even if the state wasn’t involved and there might be an issue of sustainability here. But you also started researching the effect of higher education on people in prison, on women in prison. And so, you know, working with women to reestablish education programs inside prison and researching the effect of higher education on prisoners are very different things. So, can you tell me a little bit about how you began to actually research the impact of college and higher education on prisoner on prisoners and former prisoners.

Michelle Fine  15:59
So, as I said, this was just an intellectually, and ethically, and politically good karma moment. And yet at one point, women who had been in the prison for 20 years -that is, they were maybe 45- would say, “Bringing college back has been incredible but we’re going to need to document its impact, because we can no longer take it for granted in the way that we have in the past. It’s not going to be state-funded in the near future, and we’re going to have to document its impact”. So, they asked me to do that and I said that I would do that if we could create what we call participatory action research. That is, I’m part of the Public Science Project at the Graduate Center at City University of New York (CUNY) and we engage in participatory action research, which simply means that the people who have paid the most substantial price for social injustice should be at the center of shaping the research design methods, analysis and products. And even though that sounds like a simple sentence, it challenges notion of who has expertise, what does objectivity mean, who owns the data, it raises a whole set of epistemological, theoretical and ethical questions. But it’s a simple idea that, you know, what do I know as a researcher who’s been arrested in protest, but never been incarcerated? What do I know about life inside prisons, much less college in prisons? But the women inside don’t know how to do research. So, we create what Maria Elena Torre calls a “contact zone”, which is our research team. So, it was half women “inside”  and half of us from “outside” and we would meet every other week for four years to craft research fundamentally shaped by the wisdom and insights of the women but informed as well, of course, by what those of us at CUNY knew about research, validity, what we call strong objectivity. Strong objectivity borrows from Sandra Harding, who is a philosopher of science, who argues that there is no such thing as being outside as a researcher, or above or distant and in science we have confused distance with objectivity. She calls that “God’s eye-view research” where it’s kind of view from nowhere. But usually a view from nowhere is from privilege. So, she argues for strong objectivity, which means that very differently positioned people sit around the table and share their wisdoms, their knowledge, their perspectives, their lines of analysis. And in that soup, we craft a set of research questions to which we hold ourselves collectively accountable. So, our research team of -I think it was 12 women and their names are all on the report. On that report, which has all of us as authors, you will see that I think it’s 12 of us gathered, as I said, every other week for four years and we crafted -we decided to investigate four questions, quantitative and qualitative. And to the extent possible, all questions would be interrogated by somebody inside and somebody outside. So, the first question was, what are the re-incarceration rates of women in prison who have had access to college? And what are the tax savings by educating folks in prison? -I will tell you how we got to that question in a minute. The second is, what was the impact of college on the women themselves when they are inside? And what was the impact of college on the women themselves once released? The third question was, what was the impact of college in prison on the women’s children? And the fourth question was, what was the impact of college in prison on the culture, climate, and disciplinary issues within the prison? So, we asked the State Department of Corrections to do a quantitative analysis of recidivism rates or re-incarceration rates after 36 months for a sample of women who had been through college and a sample of women who had not been through college controlling for incoming education and crime. So, it was a substantial sample -over 2000- because they had data on who had access to college prior to 1994. So, we could do a longitudinal study and look at if you had access to college in prison, what’s the likelihood that you would be re-arrested within three years, 36 months. So that finding was quite impressive that college in prison reduces re-incarceration rates for women from 30% to 8 percent. So that’s almost a 400% difference that if you don’t offer college, people are significantly more likely to return to prison. We then asked a friend -another good karma moment- a friend, who is an economist to do a cost-benefit analysis of, “So what does this save? If people care about tax savings, what does this save in terms of taxes”? And we calculated, you know, the millions of dollars saved, obviously, if women -because at that point, it was about $40,000 a year to incarcerate a woman and that doesn’t even count foster care, and senior care, and then their kids being on the streets and picked up by the police, etc., just the gross cost of incarcerating versus educating, which we estimated to be about $2,500 at that point a year. And so, there were enormous cost savings. So, in some ways, those were the most traditional indicators. The women wanted us to investigate those. I was wanting to talk much more about the impact of college on women’s lives. We then met with the Black and Latino Caucus of the State Legislature, and they said, “Sounds like an amazing project but if you don’t show that this contributes to public safety and tax savings, I can’t convince my colleagues that this is a good thing. They’re not worried about those women. And they’re not worried about their children, unfortunately, but they are worried about tax dollars and public safety”. So, we lucked out and you know, we ended up producing brochures, publications and postcards that said, “Get tough on crime. Educate men and women in prison”, “Want to save tax dollars, educate men and women”, “Redistribute tax dollars to pre-prison education rather than post-prison cost”. We then also interviewed women inside the prison and women who were released who had been through the college program. We interviewed faculty who taught in the program and presidents of universities who dedicated resources. We interviewed corrections officers. And there we tried to interview correction officers that we knew loved the program, were ambivalent about the program, and really resented it. And we got incredible quotes. Like, “I hate this program. These women did a bad thing. I’ve led a clean life -a good life- and I can’t afford college for me or my children”. And again, we made postcards of all -I couldn’t have made up better data- we made postcards of all of these and sent them out throughout the country -to state legislators, to governors- and we then started getting the universities to offer courses for the children of correction officers and for the correction officers themselves. We interviewed the children of the women who were just adorable, and children. And they would say things like, “I hate this program because now all my mom wants to talk about is homework” or “When we have a sleepover — they have trailer visits — all she wants to do is like read and write papers with me”. Other kids would say, “I love this program. Now I tell my friends, oh my mom is upstate in college”. So, there was a beautiful humanity that the variations of kinds of data that we had. And then finally, we interviewed -Maria Elena Torre interviewed, and this time alone not with a woman inside, she interviewed 20 women who had been released from prison who had been through college and, you know, we asked them a blunt question of: “You know, on your record, you have murderer, or violent crime -because this just again, a maximum security prison- and you have college, or some college, what keeps you out of getting re-incarcerated?”. And the women, you know, they were eloquent about what one learns in college about structural forces and personal responsibility. That is understanding how race and class and gender structures constrain particularly the opportunities available to low-income women or women of color. They understand the structural forces that contribute to intimate violence but at the same time also understood their personal responsibility -for often acts that brought great harm and pain to others. In the academy, sometimes we think structural analyses are separate from analyses of agency or responsibility. And what we saw in this instance was only when people understand structural forces, can there be a deep look at one’s own implication in either reproducing those structural forces or bringing harm or resisting and navigating in reimagining those structures. So that was just gorgeous. And then when we were writing the final report, we all wrote. So, we’d come in every other week and we all wrote something, and we’d read each other’s work. And I had written a section on who is the “we”, you know, the research team because I think it’s hard for people to believe that the relationships were real, or deep, or that it wasn’t kind of a white academic woman then dragging these women of color into a research process and tossing them aside. So, there are two things that I need you to know about that -one is my screw up and the other is just the sustainability of these relationships. Here’s my screw up: I had written this part, you know, “We’re all women, some of us wear green, some of us don’t, some of us are free, some of us are locked up, some of us get strip searched after our research meetings and other of us cry on the train. But we’ve all either witnessed or experienced violence, structural violence, state violence, intimate violence, and we’re all dedicated to reimagining life of justice through education, etc., etc.”. And one woman, Donna, said, “Michelle, this is beautiful, but you left out the fact that some of us killed our kids. And if you are not honest about that, you just leave a big hole for the larger world”. And it was just one of a thousand instances where those of us from the outside could be naive, romantic, misinformed, too structural and were deeply educated by the women inside. We didn’t know how deeply -we sat in this in some ways -to borrow from Foucault kind of heterotopic space within the prison. You know, we sat in this old college space imagining that that’s what it was like. We didn’t know that there was a Michele Wallace and Michel Foucault study group on the yard. We didn’t know that after a fight, they weren’t allowed to bring pens to the yard and could only use crayons. We didn’t know that late at night, young women would knock on the bars to ask older women, how do you spell ‘rehabilitate’, we didn’t know how much translation of college work was happening throughout the prison. But we also didn’t know the sadism of, you know, being denied the kidney transplant because you were late for a meeting, or have your parents visit from New Hampshire and after hours of traveling and then be told they don’t have the right paperwork, or your daughter denied access because her hair was braided. We didn’t know the kind of sadomasochistic rhythms in the prison. And so, for so many reasons, having the women’s expertise in the room is crucial, I would say, for any kind of research on justice. So, we were very committed to no “research on us without us”.

Will Brehm  31:41
Would this research have been possible if you used a method other than critical participatory action research?

Michelle Fine  31:49
Yeah, we would have known the recidivism rates and the tax savings and that’s incredible. But we wouldn’t have known the depth of the impact. We wouldn’t know how it changed the children. We wouldn’t know that even conservative Republicans should think this is a good idea. We wouldn’t have known the power of what it means to have authors go into the prison and do read-arounds with the women. Reading their own work -famous authors- and have the women read their own work. When we completed the report and sent it out to every governor in the country and every state legislator in New York State, and it is still available online. And the country has moved some. There are lots of places where college is available to men and women in prison, but still not Pell Grants. And there are still kind of creepy requirements. Like you have to be within three years of getting out or you have to have no violent felony, which has race and class implications for who gets convicted of violent felonies and who doesn’t. But we just wouldn’t have known the transformative capacity of college as a verb. So, then the Gates Foundation learns about this, and they decide, “This is a great idea. We’re going to create 250 College in Prison programs in five minutes all over the country”. So, we have a meeting at the Ford Foundation, and Gates announces this and I’m there with some of the formerly incarcerated women who were leaders. And we’re like, “Wait, wait, wait, this has to be rooted in the leadership of the men and women in prison. Like that’s what was so powerful about this”. And what Gates wanted to do and is doing is they wanted to put computers in prisons all over the country that quote, “deliver college curriculum”. And I guess that’s better than not having it, but it is so not the transformative praxis that got initiated by having real people and reading of each other’s work and hugging, and crying, and laughing, and building a community across barbed wire so that people on the outside understand our national obsession and fetish with incarceration. And understand the inhumanity of mass incarceration, but also the humanity possible, even within hell.

Will Brehm  34:53
It seems like Gates sort of missed the whole point of your project.

Michelle Fine  34:56
You know. I’ve had this experience before, where foundations find our data really compelling but then they take a deep participatory practice and turn it into a commodity that can get reproduced regardless of local conditions and participation. The first thing to go is always participation and that’s why sustainability is rough. Because if the people most affected aren’t at the root of leading either the movement or the research, the likelihood of sustainability is very low. The likelihood of engagement is very low. Even good ideas, top-down, they’re resisted for good reason. People are tired of having the United States or white people or elites telling them what to do, even if it’s a good idea. Usually, it’s not such a good idea. But even if it’s good, you know, people are reasonably suspect.

Will Brehm  36:02
You say that injustice is not really an empirical question. What do you mean by that?

Michelle Fine  36:09
You know, I’ve spent 30 years engaged in documenting the brilliance of people who have been considered disposable -folks on the margin, whether it was school dropouts, or women in prison, or Muslim American young people, or queer youth of color- and I’ve been lucky enough to accompany them in various movements and struggles. And I’ve been trusted with their stories and quantitative material and I can use my whiteness to kind of pass that information -I’m like a coyote of marginalized stories, and then I can pass it on to other audiences. And then white people might read it in an introduction to psychology class or education, and policymakers might read it, but I know enough that privilege and power holds on to its privilege and power. And that dismantling that is not a cognitive issue. It’s not, “If only we knew you were a human being, we would treat you differently”. “If only we knew locking children up at the border was bad for them, we would stop doing it”. There is -particularly right now in our country, in the US- a deep strain of white nationalism, sadomasochism, and accumulation of wealth and greed at the top that’s very raw. And people of color have known this for a long time. I think a lot of white folks didn’t quite know how relentless it was, and how vicious it was. Shame on us -but. So, I don’t think resolving injustice is, “If only we had the evidence”. On the other hand, I do think research is part of a larger struggle. And I think we try to accompany movements with evidence that can tell a different story about the wounds of current conditions, the unjust accumulation of power at the top, but also can help nurture what we call “circuits of solidarity”. Expose fissures, even within privileged people, and help people reimagine what else is possible. So, the College in Prison project in some ways, you know -at one point I said to Angela Davis, “Do you just think this is like a liberal silly project that we should just be closing prisons and forget about college”? And she said, “You know, we have to fight on both fronts. We have to create humane contexts on the inside while people are locked up, and we have to work to abolish prisons”. So those aren’t incompatible strategies. But I think researchers will not dismantle injustice on our own. We are lucky when we are trusted by activists and communities to join a larger movement to both critique and reimagine what’s possible. But no, it’s not, “If only I do a perfect study and then publish it in a perfect journal that the world is going to get fair or climate change is going to reverse itself”. I mean in some ways we’ve seen it most clearly around climate change. You couldn’t have better evidence. And it’s a larger struggle. So, I don’t think it’s irrelevant, but we have to see ourselves as part of movements and not experts who kind of ‘know’ the answer.

Will Brehm  40:12
Well, Michelle Fine thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It really was a pleasure of talking tonight.

Michelle Fine  40:17
Thank you. Really lovely.

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