Science Teaching Column: Inside Prison Walls

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

Science Teaching Column: Inside Prison Walls

by Michael Teel

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 6, No. 5, September 1974, p. 25


A survival course for prisoners? Does this mean adjusting to prison conditions? Or aiding resistance?

Twice a week for the spring semester I conducted a one and a half hour course with a group of sixty prisoners in two state prisons. This type of teaching was new to me, but the structure and content which developed seemed very successful and may offer suggestions to others. A large percentage of the inmate/students stayed with the course, which is unusual in the prison environment. Many said it was the best course they had ever taken; a number said it changed some aspect of their lives; and a few actively urged me to come teach again.

The course is entitled “Science for Humane Survival” and is normally taught at U. Mass., Boston. It was selected by the inmate advisory board (along with four other U. Mass. courses), and I hectically began pulling material together that I thought was relevant to survival in prisons. That orientation was the basic ingredient in the course’s success. Raising and examining survival issues — those issues necessary to living like human beings — is what education-for-change should be about. Some of the issues aroused immediate interest: behavior modification and human experimentation. Others were appreciated after they were looked at more closely: workplace safety and nutrition. But they all added to our understanding of how deeply our lives are affected by corporations and their State. For example, during a session on the health care system some of the inmates figured out that many of the drug tests they participate in yield higher drug company profits — not better drugs. This happens because many “new” drugs are really just minor alterations of old ones, designed to renew patent rights but acting no better than the old drugs.

Organizing a course around survival issues is a hard task since it doesn’t fit the specialties teachers are normally trained in. I put the course together in about a month by talking with a lot of people associated with various parts of the prison reform movement. After I got a sense of what were considered important issues for survival, I went out to find “experts” and experienced people who would actually teach the class. The experts included an M.I.T. psychologist, a free-lance journalist, and a U. Mass. undergrad who had researched medical experimentation on prisoners. These people gave the course a solid informational basis. In turn, they were informed about the struggles and conditions in prisons: they came to realize that prisoners are like everyone else. This was one of the political goals I had hoped would be accomplished; the other was that prisoners would come to realize that they were not alone, that people on the outside recognized the importance of their struggle. The combination of the experts’ modesty and the cons’ interest broke down many of the usual barriers between the scientifically trained and untrained. 

Two of the major goals of the course were to develop the intellectual confidence of the inmates and to enhance their abilities of collectively understanding and solving their problems. Group oral reports and attempts to draw out collective solutions in discussion were methods used to accomplish these goals. The group reports covered investigations of prison conditions, accounts of work experiences, and book reviews. Many of the cons were eager students, and their political ideas developed rapidly as they talked things out in groups. On the other hand, class discussions were hard to focus and to direct to some collective conclusion. Perhaps even more than our other institutions, prisons mold behavior that keeps people apart. The awesome power of the state makes resistance all but futile; the individualized nature of the few rewards pits one against another; the maiming of inmates’ egos by the prison prompts some to assert themselves in monologues. These difficulties were seldom satisfactorily surmounted in the course. Yet the survival orientation and the exchange between prisoners and those attempting to be helpful allies had a positive effect on many people. 

Many prisons are open to courses offered by qualified people, and those who wish to develop ties with prisoners should seek out the opportunities. Survival courses can provide a setting for servicing and learning from other oppressed groups as well. And for those who teach in non-elite high schools and colleges, it seems that topics such as health care, sexist science, and work-unemployment would be useful ones to pursue, for they speak to people’s needs and give them some tools for fighting back. Remember Attica.

Copies of the course outline are available from the Boston SftP office.


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