George Floyd Through the Eyes of a Prison Teacher


As I surveyed the cluttered, expanding, and deeply moving memorial site at 38th and Chicago, I tried to see that street corner and the murder of George Floyd and its aftermath through the eyes of the incarcerated men I am privileged to teach at two correction facilities in Minnesota.

I knew that many of them had grown up in this neighborhood. Straining through the bars to catch a glimpse of a television screen, their hearts broke as they watched the unspeakable brutality of  members of a police force they know only too well.  They, too, felt even more helpless than I did, as they watched their city burn and the businesses  destroyed of former neighbors and friends, who are mostly  people of color. They also watched with painful and intimate familiarity the extreme brutality of a police force with whom many have interacted since they walked the hallways of their metropolitan high schools.

But they also know something else. George Floyd was a formerly incarcerated person who was trying to get his life back on track. He was trying to live free. He moved from Texas to Minneapolis because he thought he’d have a better chance and a better life here. In addition to the undeniable danger of simply being a black man in America, to the incarcerated,  George Floyd represents the complexities of trying to recover from the carceral state.  The way back is possible but not easy.  And interaction with law enforcement for someone who has just been behind bars is impossibly fraught.  This holds true for Atlanta’s Rayshard Brooks as well.  Recently incarcerated and on probation, his knowledge that an arrest would put him back in jail made him flee.

The murder of George Floyd demands that we reexamine our entire law enforcement system, that we consider the sinister role police all too frequently  play in the lives of black men– young and older, free and incarcerated  or somewhere in between.

My incarcerated students can’t walk among the candles, signs, and flowers at the memorial site, but they can’t stop mourning what happened.  And they are angry, too, as are so many of us. They want us all to consider that what happened at 38th and Chicago to someone who was trying to live free, despite the odds, tells us that we need to change more than the name of the street where George Floyd died.

“In Words No Bars Can Hold, Deborah Appleman culminates years of teaching and writing in a book that spans spaces rarely brought together – the public school, the liberal arts college, and the community of prison authors. The result is an eloquent meditation on how the art of narrative defines what it is we mean by education itself, and its centrality to what Appleman calls the potential for “self-rehabilitation”. An extended celebration of critical pedagogies, it persuades its readers by devoting many of its pages to extended selections from the writings of accomplished authors who have been, or still are, incarcerated.”
Daniel Karpowitz
Director of National Programs, Bard Prison Initiative
Lecturer in Law & the Humanities at Bard College and Co-founder of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison
Author of College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration
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