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Michigan’s Abu Ghraib? Teaching Anthropology inside a Women’s Prison, On the Edge of a $100 Million Sex Abuse Scandal

Brian McKenna

Every prison has a story. At the Robert Scott Correctional Facility, in Michigan, the women were not allowed to touch one another or risk a "major misconduct." Sharing, even a small piece of candy, was against prison policy and women were written up for lending a smoke.

Surveillance was 24/7 and when you got the snow detail, you could expect to be awakened at 2:30 AM for a three hour stretch out in the freezing cold picking ice with a plastic shovel. The work, when they could get it, was virtual slave labor with full day shifts making dental materials.

The Governor, Jennifer Granholm, ordered the Christmas lights off the year I taught there to save money. Christmas exploded when one prison guard brutally murdered another guard at the gas station across the street. Many prisoners heard the fatal bullets. It turns out the shooter had been bullied severely by the victim and took out his recourse in this violent way. Later he shot himself in the chest but recovered. Needless to say the women were highly distressed by all this. Not only did they know the guards (and sympathies went different ways), but the killing brought back tough memories of other shootings, often of abusive husbands. There was no counseling for the women.

Lie Upon Lie

I learned the above as a teacher of anthropology there in 2007-2008. Formally my job was to teach Introduction to Anthropology. I covered the usual: culture, linguistics, archeology and evolution (Ember and Ember 2007). But that was not my chief focus. As always, following Paulo Freire, I seek to empower my students by interrogating, through critical dialogue, the lived experiences of everyone in the class. I unraveled the “cultural capital” of students and codify “dangerous words” for critical discussion. It’s part of a Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire 1970). You never know where things will go.

In discussing the War in Iraq, for example, I discovered that some women were military veterans. When asked about her military experiences one said, "It was lie upon lie upon lie. I was promised I’d have a safe job but the next thing you know I was ordered into a combat zone." She feared for her life. And yet, felons, like these women, are now eligible to enlist. Even though she was against the war, one inmate was thinking about it, since it’s so hard for a convicted felon to get a decent job.

A key message is that “To exist you must resist.” And they did. The blue-suited women (with an orange stripe rolling down the side) resisted the formal prison pedagogy of discipline and punish (with my encouragement) and talked about "How People die in here from lack of health care,” "How we are political prisoners," and "How people don’t know what goes on in here,” and “how we need a revolution in this country.”

It was the women who taught me more anthropology than I taught them. I learned about the culture of the prison, the language of oppression, the archaeology of knowledge and the evolution of their fates. But I never learned the horrific depth of suffering that went on there until I left.

Michigan’s Abu Ghraib? Two Decades of Rape, Tyranny & Retaliation against 500+ Women Prisoners in Michigan

I was recruited to teach at Scott Prison in 2007 by sociologist Lora Lempert, a colleague at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Lora began organizing and teaching volunteer courses there in 2004. She’s been working as a prison advocate since 1997 through the American Friends Service Committee. Her intent was to give a voice to women who were invisible and silenced. She faced enormous obstacles. But she is an indefatigable fighter for social justice who has succeeded in establishing an effective prison education program in Michigan (which I’ll discuss below). Her favorite motto is, “Forgiveness is not for sissies.”

It is hard to forgive what I am about to relay.

On July 15, 2009, the state of Michigan agreed to pay $100 million to over 500 plaintiffs in a settlement stemming from ongoing rape, sexual abuse, harassment and retaliation from male prison guards (Anderson 2009, Levy 2009, Neal 2009). Importantly, I knew nothing about this until it was revealed in the media. The agreement ended 13 years of stays, appeals and delays. The lead litigator on the suit was Deborah LaBelle. One of the team’s lawyers, Michael Pitt, said that the plaintiffs first reported abuses back in 1991. He also said that one reason the state settled was because ongoing trials from other victims could have cost Michigan in excess of one billion dollars. Most of the victims were from the Robert Scott Prison.

It took enormous courage for women to speak out because when they did there was retaliation from the guards. As Pitt told Douglas Levy, “You have to imagine what it would be like to make a claim against the guards when they control every aspect of your life” (Levy 2009).

That is probably the key reason why my own Scott students did not venture into these issues in my class. According to Pitt, most women said nothing until they were released. That put them is a double bind because the State of Michigan claimed that they could do nothing legally until a women spoke up, but if a woman spoke up she suffered badly, unprotected by the state.

The world’s eyes had long been on Scott prison with reports filed by Human Rights Watch (1998), the ACLU and Amnesty International who called Scott one of the worst prisons in the U.S. (Amnesty International 1999).

Dr. Lempert put me in touch with Carol Jacobsen who directs Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project. Jacobsen is a tenured professor in the School of Arts and Design at the University of Michigan. She has made several films about Michigan prisons, including Scott. One film Segregation Unit (2000) depicts a woman being tortured by the guards, repeatedly chained, screaming and pepper sprayed. The footage was shot by the guards and released under the Freedom of Information Act. The woman sued the State of Michigan and won a $92,000 verdict for torture.

Jacobsen was at the forefront of appealing to Governor Granholm to grant clemency to scores of women who had served long sentences unjustly. Many were there for defending themselves against an abusive husband and/or trying to protect their children. It’s a fair observation to note that many would be free had they had been able to afford a good lawyer. Still, the weight of gender discrimination and ignorance about domestic violence and women’s strategies for survival heavily biases prosecutors, judges and juries who continue to blame women for their own abuse, according to Jacobsen. One clemency petition was for Delores Kapuscinski who has been in prison since 1987. She was one of my brightest students. According to the petition (Kapuscinski Petition 2011), Delores “was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for killing her abusive husband. Delores had suffered years of emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband and [feared] that her husband was also sexually abusing their two children. She planned to take her own life, but in fear for her children, turned the gun on her abuser. Her record is exemplary. She has earned a college degree while incarcerated and serves as a paralegal, assisting other inmates with their appeals.”

Granholm denied Kapuscinski’s petition upon leaving office. Few deserving women get clemency.

Scott was closed in 2009 and all of the women prisoners were moved to Huron Valley Prison. Jacobsen regularly visits local prisons as part of her job as a legal assistant and in her role as Director of the Clemency Project. She reported that when the women arrived there one of their first jobs was to clean feces off the walls of cells from the male prisoners who had slept their previously.

“Huron Valley is even worse there than Scott,” said Jacobsen. She reported four suicides over the past 2 years (three by hanging and one suffocation with a plastic bag) and said that there are at least three prisoners who appear to have died from medical neglect. Just last month Huron Valley was ordered to stop routine strip searches on the women which were described as "sexually humiliating” (Anders 2012). According to Jacobsen, “they still have strip searches of the women at Huron Valley. They were ordered to stop only the vaginal cavity searches.”

In comparing Michigan’s prisons to the rest of the world, Jacobsen is frank.

“Abu Ghraib has nothing on Huron Valley or Michigan prisons. Our prisons in Michigan have torture going on every day.” She pointed out that “and a number of those soldiers involved in Abu Ghraib were former prison guards.” Jacobsen wants the prisons abolished.

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange
A Resource of Hope

The national security state has stripped college from the prison. The collapse started in 1994 when the Clinton Administration denied prisoners access to federal Pell Grants. Most states eliminated state tuition grants for prisoners as well. The number of college programs in prisons went from around 350 in the early 1980s to just a handful by 2001 (Fine 2001). And then funding for higher education plummeted. Consider this. Today Michigan (with 44,000 inmates) spends over $2 billion a year on corrections (up from $1.7B in 2005), and only $1.4 billion on colleges and universities (down from $1.7B in 2005), making it one of only four states that spend more on prisons than it does on higher education (Snyder 2012).

But there is hope: The Inside-Outside Prison Exchange initiative. Begun by Temple University’s Lori Pompa in 1997 the program has 15 Inside (incarcerated) prisoners take classes with 15 Outside college students. The program stresses face to face collaborative projects. The college students also get credit. Different states have different policies on whether the Inside students also get credit. The I-O Exchange now has over 400 teachers in 37 states.

As with my approach, the Inside Out experience is influenced by Paulo Freire. Pompa explains the effort this way: “What makes the Inside-Out program transformative is the emphasis on learning within a collaborative environment where the subject matter is not only present in books, but in peoples’ lives as well. That is half the students in any class are living the daily realities of the contemporary U.S. criminal justice system and the other half arrive with any number of assumptions about this system and the individuals involved in it. As outside and inside students begin to share their perspectives and knowledge with one another, the abstract becomes concrete, the concrete is understood within a larger framework, and strangers begin to perceive each other as neighbors caught within the same interlocking systems of power, prejudice and privilege” (Pompa 2011:262).

In 2007 Lora Lempert took her prison pedagogy to a whole new level when she began implementing Pompa’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange work at Ryan Prison in Michigan. Lempert is working hard to spread the program throughout the state. For her work Lempert won the Distinguished Service Award from the University of Michigan-Dearborn in March 2012. In an interview with UMD’s Reporter, Patricia Caruso, former director of Michigan Department of Corrections said of Lempert, “It would be impossible to detail for you the obstacles she faced in getting this off the ground,” said. “From an absolute prohibition on any MDOC dollars being involved, to complicated schedule and security adjustments, to staff distrust, this became a huge undertaking.”

Anthropologist Susan Hyatt is doing the same for Indiana (IU News 2009). Hyatt and her colleague from Criminal Justice, Roger Jarjoura, took the Inside-Out week long preparatory seminar in 2006 in Philadelphia and then together established the first I-O course at a men’s reentry facility in the Summer of 2007. In Summer 2008, they brought the program to the Indian Women’s Prison and taught a course on the topic “Women and Social Action.” Students do observations, reflection papers and group assignments. It was a huge success. Hyatt and Jarjoura are currently recruiting new faculty from around the state even as they extend the programs into other domains. This past Spring 2012 she co-taught an Inside/Out class titled, “Ain’t No Power Like the Power of the Youth! Young people, Crime and Activism” at the Indianapolis Men’s Reentry Facility. They are also using the I-O model in housing for women overcoming addiction settings and at a work release facility. In May Hyatt was the recipient of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis’s (IUPUI) prestigious Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Civic Engagement for Faculty.

Liberating the Dungeons

“The premier demand of all education is that Auschwitz not happen again.”
Theodor Adorno, Education After Auschwitz

We live in dangerous times. Education is on the run and fear is on the rise (Giroux 2012). We have become a race of debtors living on borrowed time (Bauman 2010). The harsh pedagogy of neoliberalism resounds in our souls: we are disposable. There are 2.3 million citizens housed in prisons (the highest rate in the world), 8.1% unemployed and the rest of us are subject to massive surveillance and invasions of privacy, all in the name of security.

Yet it is the corporate state which creates the conditions of insecurity even as it profits from the chaos. In an inverted totalitarian age (Wolin 2008), the government has merged with corporations in an almost seamless fashion, displacing education and the “social state” for the prerogatives of capital. Prison labor now employs more workers than any corporation in the Fortune 500 (except GM). Wages average from $0.23 to $1.25 an hour in federal prisons. Inmates are employed by “IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom's, Revlon, Macy's, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores” (Khalek 2011).

Colleges should adopt their local prison. Professors and students should work with inmates to write critical histories of their punishing institutions. What kinds of work are the prisoners doing? How do they feel about it? What local corporations benefit? Would they like college courses? How is the medical care? Is there torture going on? Have suicides spiked? Why? Civic Engagement is a name for this. We can work on interdisciplinary teams to draw the links between capital, repression and education. This is a form of critical pedagogy.

“The Other” is right in here in our backyards. And yet, “It’s been hard recruiting liberal arts students and anthropology students for this venture,” says Hyatt.

Prisoner solidarity work requires more applied anthropology. We need teachers, critical pedagogues, investigative journalists, ethnographers and participatory action researchers (PAR). PAR must be especially attuned to the ethics required of this intervention (see Fine 2006 for a critical discussion of her work).

Many prison educators are influenced by Freire, but there is no cookie-cutter formula for critical pedagogy. As Freire said, one must situate transformative education within its own historical contexts. All educators struggle with the “line of un-freedom (McKenna 2011) in their pedagogy. This issue addressed by James Kilgore, a Freirian math teacher who notes, “I could have embarked on a more radical course from the outset, abandoning the syllabus and linking mathematical understanding to a range of issues such as distribution of wealth, surplus value, and comparative wage rates for different races and countries. With such an approach I would not have survived for long. One of the learners would have either complained to the authorities, or a full-time staff member would have found out through the grapevine. The Federal System had long since figured out how to handle such subversion and make sure it does not spread among the population. In the absence of a significant political movement pressing for not only transformation of the prison system but also greater social justice in the country as a whole, there was little chance of swimming against the tide of prison authority” (Kilgore 2011). But there is much more space for transgressive pedagogy than might be expected. I myself taught the labor theory of value and class analysis to my students at Scott Prison. The strategies and approaches for “transformative pedagogy” are always up for debate.

Every prison has a story. We need prison stories (investigative journalism) for every town in America. And we need more prison teachers. The Inside/Out Initiative is a vital step in this direction.

For More Information:
Dr. Susan Hyatt:
Dr. Lora Lempert:
Dr. Lori Pompa:
Professor Carol Jacobsen:
A version of this article was originally published in the Society for Applied Anthropology Newsletter, Vol. 23:2, May 2012. Tim Wallace, editor.


Adorno, Theodor (1950) Education After Auschwitz.

Amnesty International (1999) Not Part of My Sentence: Violation of the Rights of Women in Custody. Washington, DC:Amnesty International. See:

Anders, Melissa (2012) “Huron Valley prison for women stops routine strip search described as "sexually humiliating" Michigan Live. April 16.

Anderson, Nicole, et al, v Michigan Department of Corrections, Court of Claims No. 03-162-MZ. (2009) See:

Bauman, Zygmunt (2010) Living on Borrowed Time. Polity:Cambridge.

Eggert, David. (2008) “10 get $15.5M for Mich. Prison sex abuse.” USA Today. Feb. 1.

Ember, Carol, Ember, Melvin & Peregrine, P. (2006) Anthropology. Prentice Hall, Pearson:NJ.

Fine, Michelle and Maria Elena Torre (2006) “Intimate Details: Participatory Action Research in Prison.” Action Research. 4(3) 253-269.

Fine, Michelle et al (2001) Changing Minds: The Impact of College in a Maximum Security Prison.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.

Giroux, Henry (2012) April 11, speech delivered at the University of Calgary

Human Rights Watch, Nowhere to Hide: Retaliation Against Women in Michigan State Prisons, Human Rights Watch, New York, 1998.

Hyatt, Susan (2012) Personal Interview. May 9.

Inside/Out Center, Intl. Headquarters of the Inside/Out Prisoner Exchange Program. See:

IU News Release (2009) “IUPUI Students, Inmates to Celebrate Completion of Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program Course.”

Jacobsen, Carol (2012) Personal Interview. May 13.

Jacobsen, Carol (2008) “Comparative Perspectives Symposium: Feminist Art and Social Change. Creative Politics and Women’s Criminalization in the United States.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 33(1) Winter.

Jacobsen, Carol (2006) (Co-sponsored by Amnesty International) “Sentenced” A Video of Robert Scott Correctional Prisoner who later committed suicide in her cell. See:

Kapuscinski, Delores Petition. (2011) See:

Khalek, Rania (2011) “21st-Century Slaves: How Corporations Exploit Prison Labor.” AlterNet. July 21.

Kilgore, James (2011) “Bringing Freire Behind the Walls: The Perils and Pluses of Critical Pedagogy in Prison Education” Radical Teacher (90) Spring. Pp. 57-66, 79.
Law, Victoria (2012) “Occupy Prisons, Injustices Behind Bars.” CounterPunch. February 12.

Law, Victoria (2009) Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. Oakland,CA:PM Press.

Lempert, Lora (2012) Personal Interview. May 9.

Levy, Douglas J. (2009) “Michigan to pay $100M for inmate abuse.” CorrectionsOne. July 27.

Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project.

Neal, Tracey, et al v Michigan Department of Corrections, et al, Washtenaw County Circuit Court Case No. 96-6986-CZ. (2009) See:

Pompa, Lori (2011) “Breaking Down the Walls: Inside Out Learning and the Pedagogy of Transformation.” In Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: Activism, Arts & Educational Alternatives. Stephen John Hartnett, ed. Pp. 253-273. University of Illinois:Urbana.

Wolin, S. (2008) Democracy Inc., Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Seidel, Jeff (2009) “Sexual Assaults on Female Inmates Went Unheeded.” Detroit Free Press. January 4.

Snyder, Rick (2012) Michigan’s Executive Budget Fiscal Years 2013 and 2014, February 9.

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