Learning Behind Bars

According to the Innocence Project, an estimated 200,000 people in jail right now have been falsely convicted and imprisoned, and that is believed to be a conservative approximation. Especially given this fact, I think it makes sense to make the prison experience less like a prolonged form of torture and more like one that welcomes thoughtful education and opportunities for reform. I would be pretty bored sitting in a cell for years for a crime that I didn’t commit. But also, as someone currently in academia, I think prisoners are probably excellent students. It’s not like they have an excuse for skipping homework, after all.

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After the passing of the 1994 “crime bill” which took away access to Pell Grants for all prisoners, participation in prison education programs declined dramatically. Even prior to incarceration, people in prison are overwhelmingly poor. The cutoffs laid out in the crime bill ensured that incarcerated populations do not get access to higher education by limiting their financial support.

“In the United States, we now have more than two million incarcerated people, a majority of them black or brown, virtually all of them from poor communities. Prisons not only have violated human rights and failed at rehabilitation; it’s not even clear that prisons deter crime or increase public safety.” – from Is Prison Necessary? in the New York Times

Some recommended prison education programs come from these universities:

“…the presence (or absence) of a degree has far-reaching implications for the employment opportunities available to formerly incarcerated people reintegrating into society. Gainful employment is one of the defining characteristics of successful reentry, and successful reentry and readjustment into society ultimately lower the likelihood of an individual reverting back to illegal activity.” – from Why Prison Education?

As outlined in the quote above and also in “Is Prison Necessary?” featuring Ruth Wilson Gilmore, improving behavior should be a part of prison. Lifetime sentences and restricted educational opportunities, whether it be from pursuing a high school GED or a college degree, eliminate the possibility of reform. If that doesn’t convince you, think of how much money would be saved if prisoners who served their time and got out of jail stopped committing crime.

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In prison it is not uncommon for books on race and black history to be on the long list of banned reading material. I think I may need to make a modified list of these books and read them myself! Some banned books include Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois, and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. There are already significant barriers to learning while in prison. But if prisoners are open to changing their worldview, why not let them have that chance?

Click here to hear Dr. Jennifer Lackey, Director of the Northwestern Prison Education Program, speaking on “The Prison Education Paradox”. Prison education programs tend to see improved conduct among students even over the course of a single semester. I learned a lot listening to her TEDx talk, and I think she is incredibly brave for teaching in prison.

That’s all from me!

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