All Have the Right to Question: Inquiry in the Incarcerated Environment

All Have the Right to Question: Inquiry in the Incarcerated Environment

Aubrey Brammar Southall and James Pawola

The bombing of Pearl Harbor is the current content for discussion in Mr. Peet’s (a pseudonym) United States History class. Mr. Peet has decided on the topic based on student written inquiry questions. Most students in the class were interested in studying why Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Mr. Peet asks, “According to the sources, FDR makes it seem the Pearl Harbor attack was unprovoked. Tojo makes the case that the attack was provoked. What do you think? Support your answer with evidence from the sources provided.” The students fervently write out their responses after fumbling through their provided primary sources. As students recount the letters Hideki Tojo wrote during his time in prison, there is a general consensus, “Why would he lie when he is locked up for life?” and “Of course, Tojo was provoked.” The students speak of Tojo as if he is someone they know. Mr. Peet’s pupils bring an interesting perspective to the class discussion as they are all incarcerated. Mr. Peet teaches United States History at Midwestern Juvenile Justice Center (a pseudonym). He is a certified teacher by the Midwestern state in secondary social studies. Mr. Peet has taught at Midwestern Juvenile Justice Center for more than five years.

The purpose of this article is to examine the teaching of social studies in an incarcerated secondary classroom environment. The article will answer the following questions: (1) How is inquiry- based instruction implemented in an incarcerated classroom environment? And (2) How does the teacher interpret their classroom engagement level when inquiry- based instruction is employed?


The researchers are on the “inside” for observations. This term is used by students in Mr. Peet’s classroom. The researchers know their position as an outsider in this unique classroom environment. They are aware their position in society will shape perceptions and field notes. The researchers acknowledge the differences between the students and themselves, though they are greater than they could ever perceive. A sequence of events has partnered the researchers with Mr. Peet. What first started as a mentoring project by the local regional office of education has transformed and the researchers are now the mentees instead of mentors.

The purpose of this longitudinal case study is to evaluate the use of the inquiry based instruction in an incarcerated secondary classroom environment. The study will answer the following questions: (1) how is inquiry-based instruction implemented in an incarcerated classroom environment? (2) How does the teacher interpret their classroom engagement level when inquiry-based instruction is employed? The researchers use a case study qualitative research method. The research questions are best suited to be answered by employing a qualitative method. Yin (2013) believes “doing case study research would be the preferred method, compared to the others, in situations when (1) the main research questions are ‘how’ or ‘why’ questions; (2) the researchers have little or no control over behavioral events; and (3) the focus of study is a contemporary (as opposed to entirely historical)” (loc. 639). The use of quantitative research methods would not answer the research questions in an appropriate manner. Data collection included observations, teacher interviews, and field notes. Additionally, in this research study, the participant is one teacher in a juvenile justice center. Field notes and observation were necessary for data collection. The case study approach allowed for a holistic answer to the research questions.

For the purpose of this research project, the following definition for inquiry is employed: “Inquiry-based learning is an approach to teaching and learning that places students’ questions, ideas and observations at the center of the learning experience. Educators play an active role throughout the process by establishing a culture where ideas are respectfully challenged, tested, redefined and viewed as improvable, moving children from a position of wondering to a position of enacted understanding and further questioning” (Student Achievement Division, 2013, p.2).

Mr. Peet’s Classroom

Mr. Peet’s classroom at Midwestern Juvenile Justice Center mimics national averages for jailed populations. The classroom where the researchers observed is made up of mostly Black and Brown young men. Most of Mr. Peet’s students report they have attended an alternative public school before entering his classroom. Over 50 percent of the students reported receiving special education services at their home public school. Kendi (2019) states Black students are four times more likely than white students to be suspended from public schools. Additionally, 56 percent of the prison population is made up of Black and Latinx people (Kendi, 2019). A recent Midwestern newspaper article stated “Youth who are detained are more likely to drop out of school, which in turn increases their likelihood of being rearrested and returning to jail” (Klonsky, 2019). The researchers noted that many practices at Midwestern Juvenile Justice Center appear to be restorative. Education is a top priority of administrators and educators. Students are offered the opportunity to participate in the following elective courses: yoga, music, graphic design, physical education, dual credit program with local community college, book club, garden club, art, and art therapy. Student artwork and murals adorn the walls of the school. The most notable student created murals state, “One day or day one, you decide”, “Renew”, and, “Begin.” Mr. Peet employs abolitionist teaching principles as his classroom “is built on the creativity, imagination, boldness, ingenuity, and rebellious spirit and methods of abolitionists to demand and fight for an educational system where all students are thriving, not simply surviving” (Love, 2019, p. 11).

Review of the Literature

Quality educational programing during incarceration can have a positive impact on students and help prevent involvement in future criminal behavior (Lochner & Moretti, 2003). The time youth spend in local short-term juvenile justice facilities should be used to address educational challenges, and to re-engage students in education or alternative programs (Office of Justice Programs’ National Criminal Justice Reference Service, 2017). Additionally, high quality education during incarceration is important for helping students become productive members of their communities (U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, 2014).

Incarcerated classrooms provide unique opportunities for secondary teachers. Scott (2013) reports there are two types of teachers in incarcerated settings. The first type of teacher sees prison as an important place for higher education and the other looks critically at the prison classroom. The researcher believes teachers looking critically at the prison classroom are more likely to advocate for incarcerated students (Scott, 2013). The researchers argue the teacher in this study, Mr. Peet, looks at his incarcerated secondary classroom critically. The researchers see Mr. Peet as an abolitionist teacher. Love (2019) states that:

Abolitionist teaching is built on the cultural wealth of students’ communities and creating classrooms in parallel with those communities aimed at facilitating interactions where people matter to each other, fight together in the pursuit of creating a home place that represents their hopes and dreams, and resist oppression all while building a new future (p. 68).

The teacher is willing to advocate for students and provide resources for inquiry. This image of the teacher shapes the narrative of the research.

The educational opportunities afforded to those in incarcerated environments impacts our societal landscape (Castro & Brawn, 2017). The classroom should be a place of thinking, discussing, and dialoguing. Additionally, the researchers and teacher highlight the importance of humanizing language when discussing people in incarcerated environments (Stern, 2014). Therefore, the researchers refer to the youth discussed in this study as students instead of inmates. Furthermore, Mr. Peet has made community in a place that is less than desirable.

For dark folx, thriving cannot  happen without a community that is deeply invested in racial uplift, human and workers’ rights, affordable housing, food and environmental justice, land rights, free or affordable healthcare, healing, joy, cooperative economic strategies, and high political participation that is free of heteropatriarchy, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, sexism, ageism, and the politics of respectability (Love, 2019, p. 65).

Mr. Peet’s classroom is a place where students and their backgrounds are valued and respected.

Furthermore, teaching in incarcerated environments should be seen as complex and unpredictable (Castro & Brawn, 2017). Teachers typically are the only teacher of their subject in the building, which is true for Mr. Peet.  Additionally, students do not have normal distractions like Wifi/internet, cell phones, parties, and school extracurricular activities (Scott, 2013). Furthermore, incarcerated students are not typically considered candidates for post-secondary education (Castro, Brawn, Graves, Mayorga, Page, & Slater, 2015). Mr. Peet does work in an environment promoting college readiness. He co-teaches community college courses for his incarcerated students. However, student perception of incarcerated classrooms draws from teacher and environmental stereotypes. “Analysis reveals how even well-intended practices in prison spaces pose obstacles to seeing incarcerated individuals as potential postsecondary students and degree completers” (Castro et al., 2015, p. 13). The presenters believe incarcerated environments with thoughtfully designed education programs “can create communities committed to personal growth, social responsibility, and engaged citizenship” (Ginsburg, 2014, p.33). Moreover, education in incarcerated environments that helps students with strong written and oral communication skills, such as inquiry based instruction, empowers them. Empowered students have the ability to represent and advocate for themselves in public spaces outside of incarceration (Lewen, 2014).

Classroom Practices

Mr. Peet instructs United States History chronologically. Each unit the teacher has the students write inquiry questions while reading an overview of the upcoming material. The teacher believes this allows the students to preview and/or review material and allows all students to start the unit with a base of prior knowledge. Students have stated writing inquiry questions as the teacher believes this gives them ownership in the lesson. “Hey, that’s my question!” is a resounding sound in Mr. Peet’s classroom. The teacher has reported, and researchers have recorded in field notes students are more engaged when student inquiry questions are used. The teacher provides research sources from multiple perspectives to students based on student-written inquiry questions. Bias is often discussed in the classroom. The teacher reported different levels of inquiry questions are written and answered based on student reading levels. Most of the students read below grade level. Resources provided by the teacher include photographs, art, music, speeches, news articles, and news’ broadcasts relating to the students’ interests. The nature of the provided resources and student written questions allows the teacher to differentiate for the variety of students present in the classroom. The teacher collects work daily and uses the feedback as a formative assessment. Due to the nature of Midwestern Juvenile Justice Center, summative assessments are not used.

Students report they often have not participated in their former social studies classrooms. Student feedback of Mr. Peet’s classroom is extremely positive. The teacher sets high expectations for all students. The researchers had Mr. Peet, affectionately known as “Mr. P” by his students, ask the students to write out why they enjoyed his class and participated in discussions and assignments. One student stated, “Mr. P teaches history in a very unbiased way. He never states opinions without refuting and clarifying both sides.” Another stated, “Mr. P is very knowledgeable of the subject. He makes it where I actually enjoy coming to school again.” Other comments were, “I like history the way you (Mr. P) teach” and “It’s (class) fun and I enjoy the fact that Mr. P actually makes it fun and makes it easy to understand.” Based on field notes and teacher reflection, many of the students have previously felt school was not the place for them.


As this study is longitudinal in nature, we will discuss the results from data collected thus far. We should note that due to the nature of incarcerated secondary classrooms, the teacher’s student population changes daily. The average time in a classroom is 14 days. Some students are members of the classroom for over a year. Additionally, some students rejoin the classroom throughout the school year. Furthermore, the researchers see youth who are incarcerated as a protected group. This study focuses on the teacher’s interpretation of classroom practices and student engagement.

Findings indicate inquiry-based learning in an incarcerated secondary social studies classroom environment is structured and teacher- dependent.  Mr. Peet’s United States History classroom ranges from seventh- twelfth graders. Students in this setting are not allowed to use the internet and have limited access to research materials. The teacher is responsible for providing needed materials for student inquiry. The teacher states the following as key components to structuring his classroom: “I usually use primary source pictures from the era or topic to spark interest and meaningful discussion” and “I find materials that I know are interesting and then tailor lessons to meet standards.” Additionally, he comments, “I do vocabulary exercises, and focus on the reading and analyzing primary and secondary sources.” Due to school policies, students are issued writing materials at the start of each class. Homework is not assigned as hardback textbooks and pencils are not allowed in student bedrooms due to safety concerns.

The teacher reported an increase in student engagement when inquiry based teaching practices are employed. Researchers recorded the following as key components of student engagement: a safe space for classroom discussion, the constant posing of “why?” to students, the posting of inquiry questions related to the topic everyday (student generated when applicable), and the modeling of good inquiry questions, sources of information, and identifying bias.

Additionally, the teacher noted increased engagement from students on release days from incarceration when inquiry based learning was used. The researchers recorded this in field notes as well. The teacher noted in previous experiences, students were understandably disengaged on release days. The students appeared to make the most use of their time in Mr. Peet’s class. Mr. Peet often states he hopes the students carry their often new found love of United States history back to their home public school.

Furthermore, an increase in individual student engagement is observed when the student’s own inquiry question is used during the lesson. Increased engagement is measured by student participation in classroom discussion and student answers to inquiry based questions. All inquiry question responses are required to use textual evidence. Textual evidence comes from teacher-provided resources.

The researchers observed empowerment, questioning, and relationships are the key components of inquiry-based learning in an incarcerated classroom environment and teacher-reported student engagement. The teacher reported relationships with the students being of the utmost importance for inquiry based instruction. The student centered approach to instruction empowers students daily. Finally, challenging students to question the history they are taught increases engagement and inquiry-based learning. Researchers used field notes, teacher interviews, and student work samples to determine key components.


            The researchers understand the complex nature of Midwestern Juvenile Justice Center and acknowledge the troubling rates of incarceration for Black and Brown young men. The researchers believe the abolitionist teaching style of Mr. Peet should be replicated and employed in the teaching of youth who find themselves incarcerated or in alternative school settings. Mr. Peet models how to successfully teach inquiry in a space where individuals voices are often kept quiet. The researchers feel strongly about the use of student-centered practices and inquiry-based instruction in environments where rights have been diminished.


Castro, E. L., Brawn, M., Graves, D., Mayorga, O., & Page, J. (2015). Higher education in an era of mass incarceration: Possibility under constraint. Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs, 1 (2), 13-31.

Castro, E.L. & Brawn, M. (2017). Critiquing critical pedagogies inside the prison classroom: A dialogue between a teacher and a student. Harvard Education Review, 87 (1), 99-121.

Ginsburg, R. (2014). Knowing that we are making a difference: A case for critical prison programming. Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, 64 (1), 33-47.

Kendi, I. (2019). How to be an anti-racist. Penguin Random House.

Klonsky, A (2019, November 7). The lifelong damage we do in Cook County when we jail kids as young as 10. Chicago Sun Times.  

Lewen, J. (2014). Prison higher education and social transformation. Saint Louis University School of Law Review, 33 (1) 353-362.

Lochner, L. & Moretti, E. (2003). The effect of education on crime: evidence from prison inmates, arrests, and self-reports. American Economic Review, (94)1, 155-189.

Love, B. (2019). We want to do more than survive: Abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom. Beacon Press.

Office of Justice Programs’ National Criminal Justice Reference Service. (2017). Strengthening education in short-term juvenile detention centers: final technical report.

Scott, R. (2013). Distinguishing radical teaching from merely having intense experiences while teaching in prison. Radical Teacher, 95 (1), 22-32.

Stern, K. (2014). Prison education and our will to punish. Saint Louis University School of Law Review, 33 (1), 443-459.

Student Achievement Division (2013). Capacity building series.

U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. (2014). Guiding principles for providing high quality education in juvenile justice secure care settings. Washington, D.C.

Yin, R. K. (2013). Case study research: design and methods (5th edition.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications,

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