The Tide that Takes You Out of Prison

Kimberly S. Drake, Scripps College
Damian V. Busby, Independent Scholar


As we began to develop an independent writing center inside a medium security prison for men, coauthors Kimberly (professor) and Damian (student) discovered that we disagreed about linguistic justice inside their writing center. Kimberly argued that White Language Supremacy must be resisted through code-meshing in academic spaces, while Damian argued that Standard American English (SAE) is the only legitimate “code” for self-expression in prison higher ed. Two years of practicing free-world writing center pedagogy in carceral contexts showed us that systems-impacted students whose lives have been marked by exclusion from mainstream versions of education have a different relationship to SAE than their mainstream counterparts. For students taking college courses and tutoring inside prisons, acquiring fluency in SAE is choosing a path to liberation.

Keywords: Code-meshing, Code-switching, Vernacular, Standard American English, Linguistic Justice, Praxis, Inclusive Pedagogy, Literacy Sponsorship, Writing Center Pedagogy, White Language Supremacy, Decolonizing education

“Proper English is associated with being highly educated. The recidivism rate for educated people drops to super low numbers. So you need to learn English in order to reduce your chances of coming back. Learning academic English makes you an outcast [in prison]. You aren’t coming back. In prison, multiple terms and multiple years are like getting a master’s or PhD, but they are ‘underworld’ degrees. Getting your degree in school is like throwing your ‘underworld degree’ away. It is telling the whole system that you’re done.” (D. Graves, personal communication, July 14, 2023)

In his 2019 CCCC Keynote speech entitled “How Do We Language So People Stop Killing Each Other, or What Do We Do about White Language Supremacy?”1, Asao Inoue (2019) speaks directly to white writing instructors, saying “White people just like you who came before you, have had most of the power, decided most of the things, built the steel cage of White language supremacy that we exist in today, both in and outside of the academy” (p. 356-357). He also tells his colleagues of color that as writing teachers in the academy, they are complicit in academic white supremacy and “form some of the steel bars around our students and ourselves” as they “judge, assess, give feedback to, and grade writing by students of color” in such a way that suggests they, too, are “internally jailed” (Inoue, 2019, p. 353). Inoue’s use of “jail” and “steel bars” as a metaphor for academic forms of linguistic injustice emphasizes its ideological and psychic constraints as well as its direct impact on the lives of BIPOC people—their incarceration at twice the rate that they represent in the population of the U.S., as he notes earlier in the speech. Having made this link between white supremacist writing instruction and incarceration, Inoue (2019) suggests that writing instructors must “stop saying that we have to teach this dominant English because it’s what students need to succeed tomorrow. They only need it because we keep teaching it!” (p. 364). Renouncing what CCCC calls “White Linguistic Supremacy” (Baker-Bell et al., 2020) in the writing classroom will liberate all of us: the people who continue to teach dominant English and the people against whom that language has been weaponized. White Linguistic Supremacy, in other words, is carceral.

Inoue’s (2019) argument rests on two premises. The first is that if U.S. teachers and tutors refused tomorrow to continue teaching Standard American English in favor of code-meshing or translingualism (see Canagarajah, 2006), we would have taken the first step in a long-term academic movement that would finally affirm students’ right to their own language2 and eventually overturn our discriminatory social systems. Vershawn Ashanti Young (2009) supports this when he criticizes “well-intentioned” teachers and “language educators” who have tried to take a middle ground by promoting code-switching (using Standard American English in “professional” settings and vernacular outside them) as the “best practice for teaching speaking and writing to African Americans and other ‘Accent- and dialect-speakers’ of English” (p. 50 ). He argues that code-switching “can’t last if racism erodes and if what counts as acceptable academic literacies and professional prose change” (Young, 2014, p. 67). The second premise is that the writing classrooms and writing centers in which Standard American English continues to metaphorically imprison teachers and learners alike are located on K-12 or college campuses. In the short term, however, and in carceral spaces, does a pedagogical commitment to code-meshing serve students as Young and others suggest it does? The authors of this chapter, Kimberly and Damian, suggest that it does not, at least in our direct and indirect experiences.

The Pitzer College B.A. Pathway and the CRC Writing Center

In 2021, Pitzer College, one of the Claremont Colleges, began offering a pathway to a bachelor’s degree with a major in Organizational Studies for students incarcerated at California Rehabilitation Center (CRC). Establishing the first Inside-Out program to offer a full BA degree (St. Armor, 2021), Pitzer enrolled a cohort of eight incarcerated students that year, and Damian was a member of #TheCohort. Damian (he/him pronouns), is BIPOC: his father is of Colombian/Barbadian descent, and his mother is an indigenous member of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where he is also enrolled. He has spent over 20 years as an incarcerated individual, including time in some of the worst prisons–level 3 and level 4 prisons in the state of California. He did years in county supermax facilities, where there were no educational programs whatsoever. There, he was limited to reading whatever books he could find out of a box that was replenished weekly by deputies. He did, however, help others with writing forms of request for services, legal work, and letters to family for incarcerated peers who lacked writing skills. He arrived at CRC in 2019 having taken over 60 college courses contributing to six associate’s degrees. In 2020, Damian was introduced to Inside-Out courses when he was accepted into the Pitzer B.A. cohort and took his first four classes from the Claremont Colleges. Inside-Out pedagogy was an unfamiliar experience; he finally felt like he had instructors who actually cared if he did well in his courses, and classmates who were positive and uplifting. He could sense that he had found a place that would give him the opportunity to succeed in life. Damian was released to a transitional facility in February of 2023.

Kimberly is a white queer first-gen professor (she/they pronouns) whose feminist social justice interests developed early in her working-class childhood, before she knew any of those terms existed and in unconscious opposition to the beliefs of her family. Her interest in prison writing emerged in graduate school, when her beloved professor, the late Dr. Barbara Christian, directed her to the work of Chester Himes for a dissertation on mid-century U.S. protest writing. After reading Chester Himes’ semi-autobiographical novel Yesterday Will Make You Cry, she added a chapter to the dissertation-based book project, Subjectivity in the American Protest Novel (2011), a chapter that also includes the television series Oz and Ray Hill’s radio show “The Prison Show.” After teaching writing workshops at California Institute for Women, she began facilitating a biweekly writing workshop in a women’s transitional facility, which continued for seven years and resulted in a book called Singing for their Suppers: How Women in Prison Nourish Their Bodies and Souls (2013), which she co-edited. She and other faculty worked with the Claremont Colleges to begin offering Inside-Out courses. When Pitzer College received a Mellon Grant to create a Justice Education Initiative, she participated in the first Inside-Out faculty training on the Claremont campuses in 2018. She then taught a protest writing course inside CRC prison in 2019. The excellent peer review work by students in that course convinced her that the inside students could staff and run a writing center of their own, so she designed the first of several writing pedagogy-focused courses that would count for Pitzer’s Organizational Studies major.

In January 2021, we met for the first time on Zoom as professor (Kimberly) and student (Damian) in Kimberly’s Inside-Out course3 called “Prison Writing Center Praxis,” a course whose goal was to establish an independent writing center inside California Rehabilitation Center (CRC), a medium security prison for men. Kimberly brought to the course her full agreement with advocates for code-meshing, while Damian held almost the opposite view, that Standard American English (hereafter SAE) is the only code allowed in college courses. We both agreed, however, that SAE or “White English” has harmed BIPOC and speakers of vernacular Englishes, and we were both open to any and all modes of collaborative learning. That semester, as theories of writing center pedagogy were practiced in a carceral context and then radically revised, we witnessed the degrees to which one kind of institution’s ideologies and premises clashed with those of another kind of institution. The biggest clash concerned the meaning and practice of linguistic justice in a carceral writing center. Our argument here is that systems-impacted students whose lives have been marked by exclusion from mainstream versions of education have a different relationship to SAE than their mainstream counterparts. For these students, to acquire fluency in SAE is to choose a path to liberation. As an incarcerated student attempting to self-rehabilitate through college education, “you make it a priority to code switch and learn academic English in class” (L. Zapata, personal communication, July 14, 2023) because learning academic English means understanding and making a space in academic culture.

Inside Students: Experts on Carceral Education

In the summer of 2023, having taken and/or T.A.-ed a total of six writing pedagogy courses with Kimberly, Damian sat down with a group of fellow students at MCRP (Male Community Reentry Program) San Diego to share experiences with education during incarceration. All were community college students in the San Diego region. This is not a typical group of prison scholars, as MCRP is not a prison. These scholars have been released and are no longer under the burden of racial segregation, prison and gang politics, or the constant supervision of correctional staff. They are free to associate with whomever they wish. More importantly, they are free to speak and exercise agency over their existence. When Damian mentioned that he was co-authoring this article on the use of academic English in the carceral setting, the members of the group were eager to share their experiences and strong opinions on the subject. They wanted their voices to be heard and asked to contribute their ideas. Although we have given these scholars pseudonyms here, they are not subjects of our research; they are formerly incarcerated students sharing their real-world experiences with those who do not share their background of incarceration and oppression. All were familiar with the work of April Baker-Bell and they disagree with calls by experts in our field4 to reject the teaching of “Standard American English”5 or “White Mainstream English” or what Smitherman calls the “Language of Wider Communication” (Perryman-Clark et al., 2015, p. 5). They would probably agree with these experts that writing instructors should not weaponize SAE against their students, but they believe that teaching students SAE is an ethical and professional necessity.

Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students are extremely important sources in academic work on prison-based writing centers, as we found during Kimberly’s course “Prison Writing Center Praxis” in spring 2021. Very little has been published on writing centers inside prisons, and not much more on Inside-Out writing courses (see Castro & Brawn, 2017; Cavallaro, 2019; Jacobi, 2016; McDowell & Reed, 2018; Moore, 2019; Pompa, 2002; Rios, 2020; Wyant & Lockwood, 2018). In fact, the CRC Writing Center is the first independent prison writing center in the country based on the Inside-Out model. Course texts, therefore, were often somewhat adjacent to the topic of the course. They included work reflecting traditional writing center pedagogy and best practices as well as challenges to that pedagogy and other models for learning. The 1200+ page coursepack in two volumes and five books was intended to give the inside students access to as much current scholarship as possible, since they lack internet access and CRC’s library is limited6. Students could not do all of this reading on their own, so Kimberly facilitated mutual-aid reading practices for optional readings (in which small groups of students voluntarily divide up those readings to make sure at least one person in the group has read and can report upon each reading). All of the writing assignments in this course were directed toward the creation of a Writing Center Handbook for the CRC Writing Center, original work in the field of writing center pedagogy7.

Once per week, Kimberly would drive a van carrying 10 outside students living at one of the Claremont Colleges to CRC to attend class for three hours with 10 inside students living at CRC and registered at Pitzer College, some of whom had worked as instructors at CRC and/or informally as editors of their peers’ writing. Some of the outside students were college tutors, but most students had not received tutoring at a writing center before. One outside student wrote to Kimberly a month before the class began, worried that her writing was not “good enough” for her to be in the course. If this outside student was concerned about her self-described “B-” writing, Kimberly suspected that inside students might feel that they didn’t possess the writing knowledge to be tutors either.

It turned out that the inside students enrolled in the course had not been given the course description, only the course title; they thought the course was an introduction to academic writing. Inside-Out instructors usually meet with each cohort of students separately before meeting as an entire class during week three. At the end of her introduction to the course topic for the inside students, Kimberly was puzzled when the students were completely silent, except one who eventually said, “This course looks like it will be… interesting.” (None of them explained to her until midway through the semester that the course topic had not been what they had expected; they were reluctant to complain or express confusion). Damian was indeed surprised that this was a class about tutoring, but he had always wanted to be a writer, so he stayed, as did all of the others. As Damian recalls,

the first day of class would change nearly everything I knew about being a writing tutor. It also upended everything I thought tutoring was. Before this, I had “helped” people with writing assignments for the GED and College English classes. These efforts were helpful to the students, and I helped many people get passing grades on their assignments, but what I was doing was not tutoring but rather redlining papers and forcing my voice into their work.

Damian suggests that an inclusive writing center is necessary in the carceral environment because students across all demographics may have no prior experience with higher education; they may be taking community college courses decades after leaving high school (or middle school). They might therefore use shortcuts and workarounds (such as asking someone like Damian to “fix” their essays), which oftentimes means they have not learned to put in the necessary work to complete their objectives. Moreover, the model of academic writing and of tutoring that inside students have inherited from their various schools and institutions is often a violent pedagogy infused with punishment. Even the inside students’ language during our first mock tutoring sessions reflected violence; they would talk about “grabbing” a student coming in for help and “sitting him down” in a chair so they could launch into a sustained critique of his essay. This pedagogical violence was and is widespread in many public schools, especially but not limited to those that primarily serve minoritized students, as Deborah Brandt has discussed across her work.

Decolonizing Prison Education

Put another way, we knew we needed a writing center at the prison, but we had no idea what it would look like in relation to models of college writing centers. Kimberly’s choice to rely on Freirean pedagogy was not just a commitment to a socially just model of teaching but a necessity in this state of uncertainty. In educational and philosophical contexts, praxis (see Gramsci, 1971, as cited in Freire, 2000, p. 52) refers to reflecting on and revising socially impactful theories during and after putting them into action. In our class, discussions of writing center pedagogy were always accompanied by mock tutoring sessions, followed by a debriefing. Our goal was to logically examine normative writing center models in our current context and observe them in practice, but their fault lines often became starkly visible when inside tutors would innovate on the spot in a mock session. In discussing how instructors should provide feedback to writers, Brian Huot (2002) states that “[a] dialectic between theory and practice shifts the focus from how we respond to why we respond, making us reflect upon and articulate our beliefs and assumptions about literacy and its teaching” (p. 112). In reflecting on how and why we were tutoring in a prison, we had to unpack every aspect of writing and writing instruction in the academy, including the language we were using to tutor. Did we want our writing center to reproduce the linguistic racism that “students of color experience outside [writing center] spaces”? (Shelton & Howland, 2014, p. 77). Of course we didn’t. Did we develop a pedagogy that “actively seeks to understand and dismantle oppressive systems,” including linguistic ones (Greenfield, 2019, p. 84)? We worked hard to do just that. And yet SAE was the dominant language of the CRC Writing Center. 

Our first class’s readings were “This Ain’t Another Statement!” by Baker-Bell et al. (2020), selections from Freire’s (1992) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and Paperson’s (2017) A Third University is Possible. Kimberly’s goal with these radical critiques of academic and writing pedagogy was to introduce the course’s premise–Freire’s vision of inclusive collaborative learning–and then to foreground challenges to previous pedagogical approaches. Freire is familiar to inside students, as it tends to be included in Inside-Out curricula across disciplines. However, in this moment, for the first time, they were reading it through the lens of writing center pedagogy–from the standpoint of themselves becoming literacy sponsors. For Damian, reading Freire this way reawakened his mind to the systems of oppression that had been in force throughout his educational career. He had been a subject of the “kill the Indian, save the man” policy back in his youth; his language center had been completely reprogrammed when he was forced by a British language teacher to replace his home languages of French and Lakota with SAE. Our first class made him realize that he had been violently brainwashed.

We also unpacked the first sentence of Paperson’s (2017) book: “within the colonizing university also exists a decolonizing education” (p. xiii). For the incarcerated students who were grateful for every moment of Inside-Out class, who thought of our “colonizing university” as a liberal paradise, the idea that Inside-Out courses might be “colonizing” came as a bit of a shock. They were living the white supremacist nightmare that results from being deprived of access to effective education and the tools to live successfully. Damian believed that the Inside-Out curriculum was a decolonizing education because it provided the concepts he needed to develop his critical consciousness. “Without the proper weapons, you cannot fight a war,” he believes:

You have to meet your opponent at the same level or above it. An education in prison allows inmates to feel enlightened and understand the oppressive systems that led them to prison. It is a powerful feeling to have control over your life. More importantly, it helps people (it surely helped me) to recognize the structures that have been placed to keep colonization firmly fixed in our society, and across the world for that matter. Understanding that the game is fixed is the key to uprooting those sources of influence. That is a decolonizing force right there. You win a war one battle at a time.

“So as incarcerated folks,” Damian concludes, “we just took it [the idea that college is a colonizing force] with a grain of salt,” as “just another ivory tower” fantasy. 

As an educator who had already taught courses inside prisons, Kimberly knew that her own abolition-informed political views about the constraints and possibilities of prison education would conflict with the views of at least some incarcerated students. She draws on Michael Sutcliffe’s (2015) dissertation, Writing Out (from) Prison: Critical Literacy, Prison Abolition, and a Queer(ed) Public Pedagogy; Sutcliffe argues that “prison education” is now more often than not part of a “prison literacy complex,” in which education has been rhetorically positioned “as the solution to crime and the means of securing social mobility,” when it is actually a “mechanism to reinforce disenfranchisement” by creating a “compliant working class” (pp. iv, 18-19). And she agrees with her colleague Alexandra Cavallaro (2019), who argues, “the PIC is both a product of and producer of normativity” that “uses literacy education as a component of its project of reform and punishment” (p. 5). For Damian and his CRC peers, however, the possibility that they could become literacy sponsors, guiding their peers and influencing their futures, was transformative. The image of a real writing center began to develop in Damian’s mind (he had visions of a comfortable, inviting area–a longshot in a prison setting), and that vision, shared by his peers, was a liberating one. What he imagined himself doing in that writing center was, in part, helping his peers develop their fluency in SAE.

Code-Switching as Liberatory Praxis

Damian and his peers were startled to discover that their insistence on code-switching into SAE during class was, according to many of our course texts, the product of internalized white supremacy that should be rooted out. In her book Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy, which focuses primarily on Anti-Black linguistic racism, April Baker-Bell explains that “insisting that Black students code-switch to avoid discrimination” means “requiring Black students to reject their language and culture to acquire White Mainstream English”; she also notes that many Black parents perpetuate the cycle of their own “linguistic miseducation” onto their children (Baker-Bell, 2020, p. 12, 61). In defining a “radical approach” to “politicizing Black English and language possibility/variety,” Carmen Kynard (2015) states that such an approach is incompatible with a belief that “students must first acquire a monolithic standard of academic discourse provided by their bourgeois, mainstream-perspective-bearing teachers” and then consider that discourse to be incompatible with “African American Vernacular” (p. 250). And in “The Costs of Code-Switching,” Young (2014) demonstrates that code-switching takes a great psychological toll. While Damian would agree that his coerced and violent SAE assimilation was damaging, he believes that he would have avoided this trauma if he had been instead taught to code-switch. 

To suggest that the incarcerated students in our course lacked consciousness about their linguistic oppression or have simply internalized racism is to simplify a complex situation. As Joe Lockhard notes, “prisons have arguably become sites of poverty-class or working-class consciousness formation and consolidation, whether one posits such formation as fully self-aware, emergent, latent, or simply inchoate.” Along with this consciousness comes an “intense awareness of the processes of criminalization” (Lockhard, 2018, p. 17). Damian confirms that students who must run a gauntlet of white supremacist violence every day as they travel to the prison classroom have indeed developed a consciousness about their oppression. They do not believe that SAE is linguistically superior to its varieties, but they recognize its power in and outside carceral spaces and are committed to learning it. 

Still, the inside students were a bit shaken by “This Ain’t Another Statement!” and its demands. One inside student shared that it was the first time he had ever heard the term “Black Language” or been exposed to the idea that it was a legitimate language. He added that as an African American child attending a predominantly white private school, he had learned Standard American English but was rejected by his black peers for it, an experience that united some of the BIPOC inside students. He continued through the semester to contemplate this article’s demands as they interacted with his linguistic worldview.

This article and Young’s (2013) “Keep Code Meshing” were Damian’s initiation into academic discussions of code-switching. He had been mentoring incarcerated students and editing their writing since 2001, surrounded by different languages, each with their own varieties, so he had grasped the concept of code-switching early on. He had to relate to every student on a fundamental level and learned early to adapt his language to each context, which allowed diverse students to connect with him. Although not new to him (or any other inside student), code-switching was now presented as a methodology that could be incorporated into a new writing center at the prison—an exciting new concept for him. Damian’s peers have a similar experience: as Oded Mackie told him, “You know I can speak normally [i.e. SAE], but when I’m around my folks, I turn it up” to avoid various kinds of rejection by them. However, Oded’s fluency in SAE allows him a kind of privilege in his community: “I am going to be honest. I get treated way different” compared to his Black friends. “I got a job quicker than everyone… My boss treats me differently at work. This makes the other [Black] guys mad sometimes. They can speak properly if they tried, but they don’t because of peer pressure” (O. Mackie, personal communication, June 22, 2023)8. Code-switching, in other words, is a survival mechanism for systems-impacted people, so teaching them that their code-switching reveals their internalized racism and/or acceptance of white supremacy is problematic.

Code-Switching v. Code-Meshing: Praxis in a Carceral Setting

Further readings in linguistic justice only highlighted the ideological divide among us as we explored work on the subject by Baker-Bell, García, Young, Inoue, Kynard, Smitherman, Canagarajah, and from the authors in Perryman-Clark et al.’s (2015) Students’ Rights to their Own Language: A Critical Sourcebook. This divide at first seemed to be philosophical, as all the inside students spoke SAE in class, and it was framed as what was “realistic” for survivance in a white supremacist society versus what was politically and ideologically coherent. Other students besides Damian who supported code-switching argued that code-meshing would “keep BIPOC out of the conversation.” In this argument, they agreed with the editorial board of the NAACP journal Crisis, who in 1971 stated that “to attempt to lock them [‘disadvantaged American children’] in a provincial patois is to limit their opportunities in the world at large”; they demanded that “our children” learn the “language which will best enable them to … share in the exercise of national power” (NAACP, as cited in Zorn, 2018, p. 156).

This sentiment is also visible in the “vociferous objections” to the Students’ Right to their Own Language (1974), as Smitherman (2015) describes, one of which was to accuse “CCCC of a ‘sinister plot’ to doom speakers of ‘divergent’ dialects to failure in higher education by telling them that their stigmatized language was acceptable” (pp. 69-70). Kimberly occasionally got the sense from inside students that they saw her as a leader in such a plot. Much later, Damian informed Kimberly that SAE is rarely spoken in prison, except in prison classrooms. When a person speaks SAE outside the classroom, “many who are in the general population–most often those who are gang-affiliated and/or uneducated–will take this as a sign of weakness,” although not necessarily of whiteness. Conversely, “gang slang” is considered “masculine language” that facilitates acceptance into prison culture (L. Zapata, personal communication, June 22, 2023). To be fluent in SAE, then, is to take a real risk9 in a carceral setting; the inside students risked it every day.

Damian’s disagreement with Baker-Bell, Young, and other writers arguing for code-meshing as the only form of linguistic justice is as follows:

Why? Because I could never forget where I was. I was an incarcerated individual. In my world, the minorities were the majority; Black and Brown men crammed the halls. The correctional officers and staff were mostly white, especially upper administration, and they ridiculed, mimicked and discriminated against, users of African American Vernacular. The people in the college program strive to get to the point where they are fluent in SAE. When a person enters a class and starts speaking slang, it is not well received. We know they are well aware that they are in a classroom and should be conducting themselves accordingly. However, when a person does not even try to break away from the gang slang, it is an affront to learning and to the concept of reinventing ourselves.

Damian’s colleague Lorenzo Zapata has a similar opinion: when an incarcerated person decides to become educated, they “need to fit in with a new version of the tide,” “the tide” referring to carceral hegemonies and the “new version” referring to the growing power of higher education in prison. “That [new] tide is going to take you out of prison to where you will never come back,” Lorenzo says.

You make the adjustment, and you make it a priority to code-switch and learn academic English in class. I think trying to hold on to gangster or other types of slang and not learning to speak properly is trying to be hot and cold at the same time. You can’t have one foot in your old life and one foot in the new. You have to jump in with both feet (L. Zapata, personal communication, 06/22/2023).

Lorenzo’s criticism of instructors who “push slang or non-standard English into academia” is similar to other arguments against code-meshing: that it is “almost setting people up to come back to prison.”

Linguistic Praxis in the Free World

We never resolved our disagreements about code-meshing versus code-switching in the CRC Writing Center; we discussed it for several semesters and decided to present it in the Writing Center Handbook as the complex and ongoing argument that it is. The fraught relationship of inside students to SAE, however, did inspire students in the class to develop elaborate strategies for “coaxing” (Damian’s term) potential tutees to open up about their writing. Inside tutors agreed to ask students whether they were looking to work on their SAE before plunging into that topic. Some tutors used “Jedi mind tricks” such as “I just want to hear what you’re working on because it will help me with my own paper,” while Damian used his “clueless yet curious persona” to draw his peers into collaborative writing work. One inside tutor’s approach to the delicate task of tutoring became a go-to strategy: he would tell people that we were offering a “joint session on writing meant to be an idea exchange for mutual assistance.” The rhetoric of mutuality helped break the ice and brought the levels of apprehension down quite a bit. Trust between tutor and student must be carefully built over time in prison contexts, and code-switching is part of that process.

In addition, we were extremely thoughtful about our terminology, including what to call the writing center tutors. Kimberly suggested the usual set of labels–Writing Consultants, Mentors, Tutors, Fellows–but each one was rejected by the inside students because of a negative association. We finally settled on the somewhat corporate-sounding Writing Associates, but Kimberly and the outside students did not fully grasp the significance of this title as a rejection of the word “tutor” until much later. As Damian explains, the word “tutoring” is a trigger for many students at CRC because it implies that they are not smart enough to get the work done on their own. The rhetorical and psychological strategies we developed in pursuit of a fully inclusive writing center had to account for the unique context of CRC and perhaps all carceral institutions.

In committing to code-switching as our writing center modality, our Writing Associates were not simply reenacting white supremacist oppression on their inside tutees but exhibiting a realism about their shared context. Damian believes that there will always be people in the system who thrive on ignorance, violence, and negativity. He also believes that education can reduce the numbers of incarcerated people by a huge margin. The carceral system is designed to break up families and oppress the marginalized. Education helps people believe in their own ability to succeed. An educated prison population who truly believe they can succeed will destroy the behemoth that has become the carceral system in the US. “We are doing it one person at a time,” as Douglass G. says, “They can keep their oppression” (D. Graves, personal communication, June 22, 2023).

 The issue of linguistic discrimination and academic language should be discussed in every college class and in every college writing center, because inclusive pedagogy demands it. However, as Kimberly and Damian have learned, the experience of creating a prison writing center lies at the nexus between theoretical idealism and real-world consequences. As a person who has reentered society post-incarceration, Damian has experienced firsthand the impact that code-switching can have on the lives of those who learn to strategically deploy it. His position as UCSD PROS Career Coach is showing him that formerly incarcerated people who lack fluency in SAE have a much harder time getting jobs. For prison writing center tutors, then, developing their own ability to code-switch allows them to help their students build an academic vernacular while also expressing their authentic voices in writing projects. With expertise in code-switching, tutors can bond with students quickly in vernacular while displaying their credibility in SAE, both necessary for effective collaboration on student writing. The ultimate goal of code-switching, of course, is to develop students’ ability to produce work within the academy without losing their culture and true selves. It is essential that prison writing centers use their platform to give tutees the best chance for success, and this necessarily includes a practical understanding of linguistic discrimination in the free world and strategies for resisting it.


    • [1] Kimberly was present when this keynote was delivered and made the article version of the keynote part of the course curriculum for her first Inside-Out writing pedagogy course.
    • [2] The CCCC Committee on Language Policy’s “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” (1974) “never answered the question of how to ‘affirm’ student language right[s]” in the classroom, as Perryman-Clark et al. (2015, p. 2) acknowledge.
    • [3] In the Inside-Out Exchange program, “incarcerated students and traditional campus-based students are in class together as peers, learning collaboratively, through a dialogic process” (Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, 2024). Inside-Out classes take place inside the prison and are free to incarcerated or “inside” students because the instructor is already teaching the course to their campus-based or “outside” students.
    • [4] The CCCC Statement on White Language Supremacy lists foundational authors on the topic: “Kynard 2007; Mao & Young 2008; King et al., 2015, Baca et al., 2019, Inoue 2015,” as well as many other “antiracist and anti-WLS [White Language Supremacy] coconspirator educators” who have “sought to facilitate students’ rights to their own language and critical literacy awareness approaches, ” including “Smitherman, 1999; Richardson, 2003; Smitherman & Villanueva, 2003; Kynard, 2008; Winn & Behizadeh, 2011; Hoang, 2015” (para. 9).
    • [5] In this article, Damian and Kimberly use the term “Standard American English” because it is common among incarcerated students.
    • [6] Kimberly called upon colleagues to donate books in our field, which they did. Thank you, Professor Mark McBeth of CUNY Graduate Center.
    • [7] This has become a book project edited by Kimberly, Damian, and two other students from the Spring 2021 course.
    • [8] Damian notes that despite being black, “Blacks tell me that I ‘don’t act Black,’ or that I ‘don’t talk Black.’ One of my Black friends said that “Black isn’t a color, it’s a culture, and you ain’t Black.” 
    • [9] Only certain inside students can leverage the power of SAE fluency, as Damian notes–those who help others with their education, legal work, inmate rules violation appeals, and so on. Additionally, correctional officers take note when a person can speak standard English, because this person could produce a correctly written inmate appeal (called a 602 form) that can cost a CO a 5% pay cut for inappropriate behavior.


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