WordsUncaged was founded by Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy to provide a platform for men sentenced to life sentences in California prisons to dialogue and critically engage with the world beyond the prison walls. The project offers opportunities for rethinking who incarcerated men are, exploring our common humanity, as well as imagining alternatives to the current prison industrial complex in the United States. Within this model, community engagement and literature form a pedagogical diptych in which the academic rigor and disciplinary knowledge of English Studies is framed alongside the context of the prison. The project explores how producing and writing about literature with incarcerated men can help us imagine a new humanism for the twenty-first century, and achieve Raymond Williams’ vision of cultural education as a process of “building social consciousness” and “real understanding of the world”—a substantive critical literacy.
There are seven main components of the WordsUncaged project, all of which offer opportunities for Calstate LA student involvement:
- WordsUncaged Prison Journal
- WordsUncaged Lecture Series at Lancaster Prison
- WordsUncaged Working Group (WWG) in Prison Pedagogy & Cultural Representation
- Service learning courses
- Prison by Prisoners Public Art and Storying Exhibition
- WordsUncaged website and social media
- WordsUncaged library archive
As the comments in the margin indicate, prisoners' reflections upon their experiences as participants in these programs exposes not only the importance of the programs to their lives, but also dimensions of their selves that rarely make it into public discourses about prisoners—a sense of vulnerability, care and determination, as well as the desire to grow and to be treated as human beings. This project’s approach to presenting these materials takes its cue from Michel Foucault’s prison activism in France during the 1970’s and the group that he founded to resist the inhumane prison conditions of the time, “Le Groupe d’information sur les prisons (GIP).” One of the central principles of this approach is to offer prisoners a chance to speak for themselves, instead of being objects of knowledge and control. This is not to suggest that the process of presenting the prisoners’ voices is entirely transparent, but rather, as Foucault puts it, a process of opening “up possibilities in discourse,” and “blending” academic, creative and prison discourses through collaborative dialogue. The central imperative at work here is to enable prisoners to have a public voice that they have been denied.
My name is Allen. I’ve been in prison for 23 years. This is my first time participating in a program like this. I’ve grown up in prison. I was 18 when I was arrested. I am intimidated but I am willing to try. My peers suggested I submit what I have and keep at it. I will get it right. Stressful.
— Alan. L.W.O.P. prisoner and member of first Cal State LA degree completion program at Lancaster State Prison.
Less obvious, but just as real, is that I have witnessed many new people that have come into my life without judgment, or ridicule because of where I am at, and they treat us like human beings. Professor Roy, the people at Karma Rescue, and to a lesser extent, even the administration here at the prison, treats our group of guys like we are truly part of a team, and we really appreciate that.
— Jeff. Sentenced to L.W.O.P. and a founding member of the Paws For Life dog program at Lancaster State Prison.