College Student and Inmate: A Narrative Ethnography of the Be The Change Program Patrticipants at the Commonwealth Correctional Center

Hayes, Anne Carrington, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Hoffman, Diane, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Brighton, Catherine, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Loper, Ann, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Moon, Tonya, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

Chairperson: Diane M. Hoffman, Ph.D. With approximately 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Of those incarcerated, 95% will be released. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that over two thirds of prisoners released from state and federal prisons will be arrested again within three years. Prison-based educational programming, particularly postsecondary education, has proven to be an effective preventative tool in reducing reincarceration (Batuik 2005; Chappell 2004; Erisman & Contardo 2005; McCarty 2006). Prisoners who participate in college education report increased self-esteem and improved feelings of self-efficacy (Brazzell, Crayton, Mukamal; Solomon, & Lindal, 2009), and others describe improvements in problem solving, analytic, and social skills (MacKenzie, 2008; McCarty, 2006). African American males have significantly higher incarceration rates and lower college graduation rates. To help address these issues, Virginia Community College (VCC) created a college retention program, called Be the Change, that offered support services such as tutoring and mentoring to African American male community college students. In 2008, a chapter of Be the Change was created in a prison in Virginia. The Be the Change community represents an avenue to explore the intersections of prison, postsecondary education, and the educational experiences of African American men. Using emerging narrative ethnographic methodology, this research presents the stories of the Be the Change program's six members as they discuss their experiences in postsecondary correctional education to answer the overarching research question: How do self-perceptions change as a result of participation in college education in prison? Data collected included semi-structured interviews, observations, and participant observations. Attention was given to the social and environmental context of the prison. Patterns emerged concerning how college and the academic community affected the Be the Change participants' identities and were presented in an analytic framework called the Agency Continuum. Representing a nexus of labeling theory, social identity theory, narrative theories, and self-efficacy theory, the Agency Continuum presented five stages to frame how participants' developed new academic identities. In the first stage, Recognition of Potential, authority figures named the men's potential and encouraged them to start college. The men's stories of recognition demonstrated passivity about how they named themselves. In the second stage, Trying on Identity, the men explored the new academic identity, but were often unsure and uncomfortable with being described as college students. In the third stage, Building Confidence, the men experienced successes that affirmed their new identity and gave them a sense of belonging. With increased confidence, the men gained knowledge, credibility, and power, which they used to critically think about themselves and their community. The fourth stage, Discernment, represented moments when the men began to feel more established in their identity and was also a stage of application where the men self-reflected and applied knowledge from their college classes to make sense of themselves and their contexts. In the final stage, Claiming Identity, the men acted and made choices that aligned with their new identities. The men's stories communicated the evolving nature of how each man self-identified, and a nuanced understanding of personal identity with an emphasis on aligning beliefs with actions. Implications and future directions for research are discussed.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
prison based education, reincarceration, Be the Change program
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