A Sure Bet

Imprisoned people are desperate to become students, and that desire and economics mandate that we heed their calls, argues Doran Larson.

August 21, 2019
 
 
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In April, U.S. senators Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, and Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, along with Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, introduced the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, a bill that would restore Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals. According to Senator Schatz’s website, “The bipartisan legislation would cut the cycle of recidivism, save taxpayer money and improve safety.”

Passage of this bipartisan act would reverse the Clinton administration’s 1994 elimination of the 1 percent of all Pell Grants that had sustained 350 higher education programs for the incarcerated across the nation. Basic economic logic supports and demands passage of the REAL Act. The widespread desire among incarcerated people to fulfill their promise makes it a sure bet.

Higher education offerings for the incarcerated return $5 on every dollar invested, as demonstrated in a much-cited 2013 Rand Corporation study. This 500 percent return is an investment in multiple communities, including those where the formerly incarcerated will return as more employable, taxpaying advocates for education among their families and friends. It’s an investment in the safety of prison staff inside institutions where incarcerated people will maintain clean behavior records in hopes of admission. It is an investment in public safety, as the formerly incarcerated find the means to walk away from problem lifestyles. Another Rand study shows that "inmates participating in correctional education programs were 28 percent less likely to recidivate when compared with inmates who did not participate in correctional education programs."

Under the Obama administration, “experimental” Pell Grants were offered competitively to institutions offering credit-bearing courses to incarcerated people. Reducing prison populations and their attendant costs, and moving prisons closer to the rehabilitative ethos that reigned from the end of World War II until the beginnings of mass-scale incarceration in 1973, are two of the few goals that unite Democrats and Republicans. But Second Chance Pell required the political cover of merely providing the basis for further study of the benefits of educating imprisoned people.

The evidence is now in. If we were discussing such returns from replacing inefficient boilers or plumbing, voters would be appalled that lawmakers had not acted long ago.

It is a wobbly moral calculus that complicates this obvious public good: Are we not rewarding criminality? This view, like U.S. criminal justice policy itself, is detached from research, built instead on popular myths and racial animus that politicians and prison profiteers have used for 40 years to win votes and contracts. (The best indicators of punitive attitudes toward lawbreakers is not a person’s potential for victimization but their race, party and the hours spent watching local news.) It is this same moral calculus, however, that frames the desire among the imprisoned to prove that they can deliver education’s public benefits.

Longing for Education

From personal experience teaching incarcerated people, I can attest that they know full well what the world outside thinks of them and how that thinking has blocked constructive programming. “We’re waste,” a man in a noncredit writing workshop once announced to me and a group inside Attica, explaining why no college classes were being offered. “We’re sitting inside a human waste dump.”

A few years later, at an orientation meeting, when I asked what the word on the yard was about the inaugural class of a program I had organized leading to a two-year associate degree through a local community college, one man answered “Right now, in here? This program is a bigger buzz than football.”

While often demonized as monsters committed to crime, the truth is that imprisoned people long for education. In 2011, among the 2,200 men inside Attica, just over 800 held GEDs or high school diplomas required to apply to the community-college program, and we received written expressions of interest from more 1,300. Yet our private funding allowed us to enroll only 30 of them. At New York State’s Mohawk Correctional Facility, which was recently accredited as a branch campus of Herkimer County Community College, state funding has enabled enrollment of only 50 students. Across the nation, the patchwork of college-in-prison programs, and the people who run and staff them, recognize that current funding is insufficient to reach all the people who want to enroll. Pell restoration will fuel a national renaissance of college-in-prison programs.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has recently announced awards totaling $3.3 million to college-in-prison programs. Mellon and other donors don’t only provide programming now; they also help to counter public complaisance with the retributive warehousing of convicted people. Incarcerated people know this, and those who do manage to enroll in college programs realize just how lucky they are. They understand from experience what researchers have argued: prison does not curb criminal behavior but serves as “breeding ground for future criminal activity.”

When discussing with new faculty members the challenges of teaching inside a prison, I have to warn them, “You need to be ready to work inside a classroom where you are the living embodiment of hope.” I know this not only from my own teaching but also from a decade of collecting first-person essays by incarcerated people writing about their experience inside. This work started with a collection of 71 essays from 27 states called Fourth City, a title reflecting a prison and jail population just smaller than Chicago’s. Fourth City’s submission deadline passed in fall of 2012, but essays just kept coming, leading to the creation of The American Prison Writing Archive.

In both the book and the archive, incarcerated people express a consistent and heartfelt desire for higher education. They know that had they succeeded in school, they would not be where they are today -- and that where they are today makes it impossible for them to counter the world’s hatred of them, incubating “frustration, violence and … hopelessness.”

It is thus no accident that when incarcerated people describe their college experience inside, they often record the revelation of classrooms where the focus is on the future, rather than on actions of the past that can never be undone. A man in North Carolina describes the teachers who came inside: “In their eyes, we weren’t inmates, we were college students. That alone had a huge impact on many of us. A dollar figure can’t quantify this lesson in confidence and self-respect.”

A writer in Connecticut unpacks the kind of justice that ended Pell eligibility:

It is a cruel and severely misguided sense of justice which deems it just to throw away a person's life without taking into account how maturity, education and rehabilitative efforts may transform that person into someone who not only learns the errors of their ways and develops a sense of remorse, but who actively develops a desire to do good and effect a positive change in society.

A woman held in Texas describes herself as “desperate to further my education.” When such desperation is met by opportunity, incarcerated graduates can say, “I am capable of doing something good.”

Education helps to bracket incarcerated peoples’ well-grounded resentment of the senselessness of this system, opening the way for change. A man inside a Tennessee prison so violent it was eventually closed by court order recalls the years of Pell access and an assignment on the stabbing death of a classmate:

I wrote a poem about the senseless act and was forced to examine my own self and the fact that I had killed someone. College had exposed me to thoughts and ideas that were starting to challenge my way of thinking. I had to be honest with myself about the terrible impact of violence and accept responsibility for the things I had done. I was starting to feel and understand the power of education.

Evoking such reflection is not the responsibility, nor should it be the goal, of academics working inside. It is our job, however, to help all students discover, explore and fill the gaps in their understanding of the world and of themselves. In spaces of social quarantine, where illiteracy, racism, addiction, mental illness and poverty are concentrated, and rehabilitation has been replaced by a commitment to causing pain, such gaps are bound to be both broad and deep. Yet with sustained support, the positive effects of our efforts are sure to be equally profound.

Since the opening of the first American penitentiary in Philadelphia in 1790, Americans have been sending people into confinement in order to teach them a lesson. We have also systematically censored or ignored their reports of what lessons our punishments actually teach. Imprisoned writers are reaching out now, neither with violence nor with any more power than lies in our own ability to imagine they have something to tell us. They are trying to tell us how badly we need to teach them. It is time to do ourselves a favor and listen.

Bio

Doran Larson is Walcott-Bartlett Professor of Literature and Creative Writing and director of The American Prison Writing Archive at Hamilton College.

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