Education Behind Bars


Education Behind Bars

Sat, 03/24/2018 - 21:21

It’s safe to say that prison inmates are by far the most largely observed group of people in the world. Most of their moves are captured digitally by security cameras. They are always accounted for and literally counted by the number assignment they are provided. They are overseen by prison administration day in and day out. Their mail is open and checked. Their phone calls are scanned. Their visitors are logged. They have a calculated system from the time they are told to open their eyes in the morning to the time they are told to go to sleep. The public can find them by name on directories and even discover each individual’s sentence as well as when they are being released. What is such a mystery among the most observed population in the country is how many of them are taking college courses.

Behind Bars

Although there isn’t precise data on their education, there is data on their contributions. There are exact numbers of the thousands of inmates working under the California Prison Industry Authority within the 34 California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation institutions. These inmates work on assignments in one of the organization’s 100 manufacturing, service, and consumable factories throughout California’s prisons. This is a government program that has prison inmates manufacture consumer goods and contains more trackable data than any education program implemented throughout the state.

Much of the social inequality in America has been fueled by the rapid growth of prison inmates. With only 5% of the world’s population, the United States houses 25% of the world’s prisoners (often for nonviolent offenses). These prisoners are among the most poorly educated people in the country, which, in fact, contains the key to a much larger solution. This group of people have little access to social mobility and inequality in regard to education. However, research shows that education reduces recidivism. Children with parents in the prison system have high odds to become incarcerated themselves. On the same token, children who have parents graduating college are much more likely to seek higher education as well. It’s a simple cycle that can not only reduce the current recidivism rates of inmates but also eliminate a future generation of crime. When it comes to public and lawmakers’ opinions on the children however, these facts are ignored. The general consensus reflects the idea that money should not be spent on inmate education; hence the charmingly named “Kids Before Cons” Act.

Despite extensive expenditures into the housing of incarcerated people in this country, there is little to no emphasis on the funding of education for these people that would be proven to reduce their return to prison. The RAND corporation is the mega analysis system holding these research facts. Over 30 years of prison and education research estimates that every $1 spent on education translates into a savings of $4 - $5 on prison costs down the line. To put that in perspective, this is a $70 billion a year industry. A lot of people are making money off of the warehousing of inmates. I’m no mathematician, but if you can save up to $5 for every $1 you spend, that’s A LOT less than a $70 billion annual profit. So in the case of our society, profit trumps social equality and equal access to the basic need of education for this group of human beings.

Most of it boils down to politics; Legislators (even the ones who are aware it costs about $60,000 per inmate per year) are worried about public opinion so they will argue that spending public money on inmates is an insult to law-abiding taxpayers. It also comes down to entitled opinion. People who either don’t understand all of the socio-economic factors centered around the prison population, or those who fail to empathize with these human beings, have their own opinions as to why education is unnecessary for them.

In an effort to resolve concerns around whether or not this population “deserves” equal access to the basics of higher education, I have a suggestion: Why not revamp one of these multi-million-dollar corporations that “employ” prisoners for nickels a day and use that money on education programs for the incarcerated? If they are working to educate themselves then shouldn’t that cut down on some of the scrutiny to their college access? Some of that money could also go to other social welfare programs or even basic sanitary and personal hygiene needs available for purchase through their commissaries, but I digress.

My personal feelings in concern of the discarded populations in our society are simple. I believe we are all one move, decision, or circumstance away from being in their situations. Take it how you want. Have you ever made a mistake and said “whew! that could have gone a lot worse”? Have you ever had something really bad happen to you and thought about the possible domino effect, which could leave you jobless or homeless? Could you imagine even being in the wrong place at the wrong time or trusting someone that you should have never relied on? Every one of us can relate to being human. We should not have to question how we look at others or how to treat others humanely. Equal access to education should be a real thing. Put aside public opinion on the social undesirables and debates of whether they deserve it or not. The facts are clear. Inmates are human beings and inmate education saves a lot of money and makes our communities a lot safer.

What does an effective inmate education program look like? How has education impacted your life?

Submitted by Alicia Stettler Sun, 03/25/2018 - 05:31

There have definitely been times in my life that could've ended very differently if circumstances had been different. We need to stop dividing ourselves and thinking of prisoners as "them", there could be a day when prisoners are "you" or "me". I think an effective program needs to include choice. Education should be about the individual and not about what someone else thinks you should learn.

Submitted by Christian Ace … Sat, 04/07/2018 - 17:57

The lack of educational opportunities in prison is alarming. But, I would argue that this is deliberate. Prisons aren't for rehabilitation or reform. They are for control. The 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, reads: 'Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction'.

The system doesn't want inmates to become educated. Education leads to consciousness. Consciousness leads to rebellion and less recidivism. The goal is to fill up the prisons, not rehabilitate or educate those that inhabit them.

Malcolm X had the fortune of fortuitously being transferred to a prison with a large, diverse library. Without access to that library, we would have never known the Malcolm X we remember today. The system doesn't want anymore Malcolm's. In fact, it's their worst nightmare.

"I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge. Between Mr. Muhammad’s teachings, my correspondence, my visitors—usually Ella and Reginald—and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.

The Norfolk Prison Colony’s library was in the school building. A variety of classes was taught there by instructors who came from such places as Harvard and Boston universities. The weekly debates between inmate teams were also held in the school building. You would be astonished to know how worked up convict debaters and audiences would get over subjects like “Should Babies Be Fed Milk?”

Available on the prison library’s shelves were books on just about every general subject. Much of the big private collection that Parkhurst had willed to the prison was still in crates and boxes in the back of the library—thousands of old books. Some of them looked ancient: covers faded; old-time parchment-looking binding. Parkhurst, I’ve mentioned, seemed to have been principally interested in history and religion. He had the money and the special interest to have a lot of books that you wouldn’t have in general circulation. Any college library would have been lucky to get that collection.

As you can imagine, especially in a prison where there was heavy emphasis on rehabilitation, an inmate was smiled upon if he demonstrated an unusually intense interest in books. There was a sizable number of well-read inmates, especially the popular debaters, Some were said by many to be practically walking encyclopedias.

They were almost celebrities. No university would ask any student to devour literature as I did when this new world opened to me, of being able to read and understand.

I read more in my room than in the library itself. An inmate who was known to read a lot could check out more than the permitted maximum number of books. I preferred reading in the total isolation of my own room.

When I had progressed to really serious reading, every night at about ten P.M. I would be outraged with the “lights out.” It always seemed to catch me right in the middle of something engrossing.

Fortunately, right outside my door was a corridor light that cast a glow into my room. The glow was enough to read by, once my eyes adjusted to it. So when “lights out” came, I would sit on the floor where I could continue reading in that glow.

At one-hour intervals the night guards paced past every room. Each time I heard the approaching footsteps, I jumped into bed and feigned sleep. And as soon as the guard passed, I got back out of bed onto the floor area of that light-glow, where I would read for another fifty-eight minutes—until the guard approached again. That went on until three or four every morning. Three or four hours of sleep a night was enough for me. Often in the years in the streets I had slept less than that.

The teachings of Mr. Muhammad stressed how history had been “whitened”—when white men had written history books, the black man simply had been left out...I never will forget how shocked I was when I began reading about slavery’s total horror. It made such an impact upon me that it later became one of my favorite subjects when I became a minister of Mr. Muhammad’s. The world’s most monstrous crime, the sin and the blood on the white man’s hands, are almost impossible to believe...I read descriptions of atrocities, saw those illustrations of black slave women tied up and flogged with whips; of black mothers watching their babies being dragged off, never to be seen by their mothers again; of dogs after slaves, and of the fugitive slave catchers, evil white men with whips and clubs and chains and guns...

Book after book showed me how the white man had brought upon the world’s black, brown, red, and yellow peoples every variety of the sufferings of exploitation. I saw how since the sixteenth century, the so-called “Christian trader” white man began to ply the seas in his lust for Asian and African empires, and plunder, and power. I read, I saw, how the white man never has gone among the non-white peoples bearing the Cross in the true manner and spirit of Christ’s teachings—meek, humble, and Christlike…

I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. I certainly wasn’t seeking any degree, the way a college confers a status symbol upon its students. My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America. Not long ago, an English writer telephoned me from London, asking questions. One was, “What’s your alma mater?” I told him, “Books.” You will never catch me with a free fifteen minutes in which I’m not studying something I feel might be able to help the black man."