Archive for June, 2011

Midwest Pages to Prisoners & Prisoner access to information

Midwest Pages to Prisoners [] had their 12 hour “Pack-a-Thon” today. The organization collects, sorts, and sends books to several states’ jails and prisons. Not only do they provide prisoners with much needed reading materials, but volunteers also respond to prisoners’ letters handwritten, personal notes. Prisoners write to the Bloomington office with requests – from anything specific as “How to Make Money From Stocks, Fourth Edition”, to general as books on “animal behavior.”

Pages to Prisoners usually only have volunteer hours for a couple days a week, a few hours each day. Anyway with the Pack-a-Thon, I no longer had an excuse not to participate in this awesome activity – I finally got myself to the building to volunteer and it was great.  It was a combination of my favorite things: books, education (self-directed, no less!), and literacy advocacy in correctional facilities. [Also, nerdy ISBN jokes.]

The restrictions on reading materials allowed to prisoners vary from facility to facility, and it was fascinating and frustrating to learn of some prisoners’ lack of access to quality, self-motivated literacy opportunities. I want to write more about this over the next day or so. I’m really intrigued by prison libraries, as well as external organizations such as Pages to Prisoners, and the access prisoners have to books specifically, and information in general.


The Current State of Education in Prisons: An attempt at a synopsis (Final paper, Part III)

Here’s another attempt at summarizing an incredibly nuanced issue – education in the prison system. I tackle the problem of generalization in my first sentence, and I hope that I maintain that cautiousness throughout this brief synopsis.  I have highlighted some of my main inquiries throughout the section.

The final questions resulting from this investigation include: why aren’t more prisoners interested in educational opportunities?  What can the system do to entice them? What part does education play in rehabilitation? (Is “rehabilitation” even the right word to use?) What other factors affect recidivism and can education play a part in mitigating those factors?

The Current State of Education in Prisons

Like the public school system in the United States, the prison education system is diverse – not only in student population, but in facility offerings. There are a variety of educational programs offered and curriculums employed, so it is impossible to ascertain a complete understanding of the current state of education in our prisons. In 2000, 89% of federal, state, & private correctional facilities provided education programs of some sort (Coley & Barton, 2006). There is a noted difference between vocational training offered in state prisons (56%) and federal prisons (94%) (Greenberg, Dunleavy, & Kutner, 2007, p.50). To illustrate the range of programs, one ex-inmate, Alan Mobley (2003), described the educational opportunities available at the different federal facilities he was transferred to during his sentence. At the first facility, the local community college offered associate’s degree classes; the next had no college courses, but he was able to take a single correspondence course; and the last facility in Denver offered a full array of college courses. It was here that he was able to earn both his bachelor’s in economics and his master’s in sociology (p.217). Yet, while Mobley was ready to begin a postsecondary degree while in prison, only 43 percent of inmates in 2003 had a high school diploma or GED (Greenberg et al., 2007, p.48). In addition to differences among facilities, every state provides different incentives (or not) for participating in educational programs, including early release. Indiana’s adult basic education and GED courses are voluntary (Coley & Barton, 2006, p.17).

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, participation in correctional education programs (including basic education, GED/high school, college courses, and vocational) has declined in both state and federal prisons from 1997 to 2004 (Crayton & Neusteter, 2008). It is not clear whether this is due to an increasing population attempting to utilize a static number of programs, or if it is a decrease in inmate interest. Both explanations may have resulted from another factor – a lack of resources due to the limited money available to facilities for educational programs, particularly post-secondary ones. According to Coley and Barton (2006), “before 1998, the federal government required states to spend no less than 10 percent of their Basic State Grant for Adult Education in state institutions, including correctional institutions; the law now requires them to spend no more than 10 percent” (emphasis in text, p.17). Other slashes in funding for prison education resulted from the Clinton administration’s “tough on crime” policies of the 1990s, including cutting Pell grant funding to the incarcerated, which caused the majority of post-secondary education programs in prisons to dissolve (Coley & Barton, 2006, p.17). The National Assessment of Adult Literacy survey of prisoners (2007) can provide further insight. Their survey, completed by 1,200 prisoners, showed that only 10% of the inmates were currently enrolled in vocational training – programs “designed to prepare prison inmates for work after their release from prison” (p.50), and only 14 percent were on a waiting list for that training. 

Though funding has been sparse, studies have shown a correlation between participating in educational programs and reduced recidivism. According to an oft-cited rigorous research study from Steurer and Smith (2003), that utilized a quasi-experimental design (a random sample was not possible) analysis of three states’ educational programs, this correlation exists. The study also showed that for every year of the study’s post-release follow-up the wages of educational program participants were higher than their non-participant cohort counterparts (p.14). In other words, in addition to returning to prison at a lower rate, educational program participants were also more likely to gain higher paying jobs at reentry into society. Vacca (2004) performed a brief review of the literature detailing studies that demonstrated this same correlation.

Looking specifically at the costs incurred by prisons, Drake, Aos, & Miller (2009) performed a cost-benefit analysis of all programs offered by the state of Washington. The study found that both vocational education and general education (basic education or postsecondary) programs had significant cost savings per inmate (p.184). If education is successful in reducing recidivism, which in turn can decrease costs and prevent the building of more prisons, why is it not the highlight of recent reform measures?

Thus, we need to consider the nature of the education programs, as well as additional factors that contribute to recidivism rates. While educational programs have been shown to decrease recidivism rates, they are not completely alleviating the problem of recidivism that leads to increasing prison populations. For example, while one study showed that only 25% of inmates returned to prison after receiving vocational training in prison as opposed to the 77% general prison population’s recidivism rate, there are still a quarter of participants returning to prison (Vacca, 2004, p.298).  What about these prisoners who go through education programs and still recidivate? What about those who are not compelled to participate in education programs or who drop out of prison education programs?

Through my research of the literature, I sought to consider the inmates’ point of view on educational programs in prisons as a way to inform how programs could be improved. As ex-inmate, now assistant professor of criminal justice, Charles M. Terry (2003) states: “most statistical and theoretical research presented and quoted in journals, books, and classes has little to do with the real-life situations of human beings” (p.110). The following pages will seek to incorporate the real-life situations of those in prison education programs.

An attempt to summarize a complicated problem (Final paper, part II)

Here’s a bit more of my paper – hooray! The section posted below is my attempt to provide context to the situation of mass incarceration so I can discuss the state of education in the system, and propose solutions in later sections. I discuss the underlying issue of racial injustice in the criminal justice system, along with the “school-to-prison pipeline” theory and its effect on a growing prison population.

The point I wanted to make in this “brief history”, and I’m not sure if I succeeded, was the integrated, systemic nature of the problem. There are numerous causal factors and infinite ways these factors interact with each other in time and space to perpetuate the problem.

This is a good time to delve a bit into how I think about this problem, and the world in general – I have a very difficult time stating something is “in fact” resulting from something else. I ask too many questions to ever believe that I know why something is the way it is. There is always another voice with a story that allows you to question your preconceptions. You can see why I call my blog “Reserving the Right to Reconsider”. This warrants further reflection, but for now, here’s the next section of my paper, “Mass Incarceration and Education: Investigating Intersections”. Thanks to those who read and/or respond!

Mass Incarceration: A Brief History of the Problem

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

–          Fyodor Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead

The United States prison population has ballooned in the last forty years. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (West, Sabol, & Greenman, 2009), by the end of 2009, nearly 2.3 million Americans were in prison or in jail, while over 7.2 million people were entangled in the justice system in some way (probation, prison, jail, or parole) (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011). In 1980, that number was only 1.8 million (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011). In other words, the number of people the United States had behind bars in 2009 nearly matched the number of people who were in the entire justice system in 1980. Indiana has seen a greater increase in prison population than its neighboring states, rising at a rate of 41% over the past eight years (CSGJC, 2010).

The United States is alone in its carceral tendencies. “Between 1970 and 2010 more people were incarcerated in the United States than were imprisoned in any other country,” (Thompson, 2010, p.703). According to the National Center on Crime and Delinquency, “the US has less than 5% of the world’s population but over 23% of the world’s incarcerated people” (NCCD Fact Sheet, 2006).

In addition, the criminal justice system maintains an inequality between races so disparate that one legal scholar has called the US justice system the “new Jim Crow” (Alexander, 2010). By 2006, one in fifteen black men over the age of 18 were imprisoned (Thompson, 2010, p.703). Adolescent black men face similarly disproportionate incarceration rates. They make up 14% of the total population of those between the ages of 10 and 17, but make up 40% of 10-17 year-olds who are incarcerated (Sickmund, 2004 in Leone et al., 2005).

The effects of incarceration do not end after the convicted leave prison. Several states limit felons’ rights to housing and jobs directly, as well as their right to vote (Alexander, 2010; Loury, 2007; Thompson, 2010). For instance, the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act “authorized public housing authorities to evict any tenant who allows any form of drug-related criminal activity to occur on or near public housing premises” and prevent anyone with a drug conviction from receiving student loans (Alexander, 2010, p.52). In 1996, 1.4 million African American males were permanently disenfranchised from the democratic political system because of felony convictions (Karlan, 2007, p.42). Karlan (2007) goes on to demonstrate the impact this level of disenfranchisement can have. Consider what could have happened in the 2000 presidential race in which George W. Bush won Florida by only 500 or so votes:

Florida disenfranchises more people than any other state—approximately 827,000. Slightly over 600,000 of those individuals have completed their sentences and have been discharged entirely from the criminal justice system. Approximately 10.5 percent of the state’s adult black population was disenfranchised compared with 4.4% of the non-black population. A recent study by Chris Uggen and Jeff Manza estimated that, had ex-offenders who had completed their sentences been permitted to vote – presumably at the same rate as their socioeconomically comparable, but not disenfranchised, peers – Al Gore would have carried Florida by more than 31,000 votes (pp.48-49).

More indirectly, ex-felons have difficulty being hired due to their past arrests as well as their lower levels of education. Employers may see them first as a “felon” or “convict,” even long after they leave prison, (Alexander, 2010; Ross & Richards, 2003), and therefore deem them less desirable employees (Coley & Barton, 2006). Thompson (2010) cites several studies showing that ex-inmates’ employment opportunities decreased by 59 percent (p.714). Prison has become, according to the analysis of Pettit and Western (2004) a “common life event for recent birth cohorts black non-college men” (p. 164). More and more, prison is becoming a part of a poor, uneducated, black male’s identity. “In 1999, about 30 percent of such men had gone to prison by their mid-thirties,” (Pettit & Western, 2004, p.164).

The American justice system was not always so punitive. From 1925-1975, the rate of incarceration hovered around 100 people per 100,000, jumping to nearly 500 per 100,000 by 2001 (Pettit & Western, 2004) and to 743 per 100,000 in 2009 (Glaze, 2009). In fact, the earliest prisons focused on rehabilitation. The first prison school, founded by the Quakers in 1798, was meant to improve basic skills, as well as to show “humanity toward those unhappy members of society” (Coley & Barton, 2006). There was inevitable backlash to this perspective. The Auburn, New York prison system was based in the belief that “too much faith had been placed in [the convict’s] reformability” (Coley & Barton, 2006, p.5).

This debate between rehabilitation (including education) and punishment underlies much of the literature on prison education and reform as the pendulum of public opinion and political power sways from one side to the other. The 1970s was a time of rehabilitation – it was even called the “Golden Age” of correctional education by some because of the numerous Adult Basic Education (ABE), General Education Development (GED), and post-secondary opportunities provided to prisoners throughout the United States (Ryan & McCabe, 1994 cited in Crayton & Neusteter, 2008). In the 1980s and 90s, during the “war on drugs” campaign of Ronald Reagan and the “tough on crime” rhetoric of his and subsequent administrations, the pendulum swung again from rehabilitation to punishment (Alexander, 2010). How this punitive push resulted in an increase in the prison population will be discussed briefly below.

The New Jim Crow & the War on Drugs: Policy’s Impact on Prison Population

It seems obvious that legislation and policy would play a direct role in the increase in prison populations over the past few decades.  Alexander (2010) argues that the war on drugs was in response to the instability of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which left many white Americans unsure of their political power in the future. She argues that rather than explicitly fight against racial equality, conservative politicians at the time engaged in a “general attitude of ‘toughness’ toward problems associated with communities of color” (p.54), connecting those communities with crime and violence. Thompson (2010) furthers this argument, describing the history of the “criminalization of urban spaces” and targeting of communities of color: “law enforcement not only disproportionately targeted cities in its new war on drugs but it also particularly policed the communities of color within them; this, despite extensive and readily available data that these areas were not where most drug trafficking and usage took place” (p.708). Claims such as the need to restore “law and order” were cited as reasons to enforce stricter drug laws (Thompson, 2010). As one would expect, the war on drugs greatly increased the incarceration rates for drug crime. The incarceration rate for drug offenses was approximately 15 per 100,000 adults in 1980. By 1996, that rate grew to 148 per 100,000 adults (Blumstein & Beck, 1999, p.20-21).

As mentioned above briefly, the war on drugs implemented a multitude of barriers for anyone with a drug conviction on their record. In addition to post-release difficulties, new laws enacted also increased minimum sentencing laws. Indiana’s 20 year minimum sentence for selling a small amount of cocaine was noted above, and states throughout the nation enacted similarly draconian legislation. Yet, as Blumstein and Beck (1999) point out, the rate of incarceration has grown not necessarily due to increased time served, but to rates of arrests. They call this “the clearest example of a toughening by the criminal justice system” (p.42). The Clinton administration’s enactment of the three strikes laws further illustrate the use of arrests, not necessarily sentence length, as a means of crime control leading to an increase in the prison population (Coley & Barton, 2006).

In addition to the toughening of the criminal justice system through the war on drugs, urban communities were suffering from a decrease in job opportunities. Just as the labor movement was floundering in post World War II America, the prison institutions looked to make money off of their inmates by contracting them out to both private companies and the government for cheap labor (Thompson, 2010, pp.718-720). This combination of circumstances left few job opportunities  in urban areas, increasing the likelihood of poor black men turning to the drug trade, and the “drug war raised the risks that they would be caught, convicted and incarcerated” (Pettit & Western, 2004, p.154).

Thompson (2010) argues that this population transfer from inner cities into prisons, affects not only on those in prison, but those outside – including students’ educational experiences. Considering that by 2000, “one in ten children in American had one or both parents under correctional supervision” (p.714), a disproportionate amount of whom were in urban areas, the schools filled with these students can be dealing with “negative behavioral and learning consequences” that come from the stress of having a potentially unstable home life (p.715). Coley and Barton (2006) call for further research into these children’s lives, citing some studies that detail the children’s increased risk for trauma, negative behavior, drug use, and aggression, among other negative effects, including a “decline in school performance” (p.24). Growing up in this environment, it is not surprising that according the risk of imprisonment for African American male high school dropouts has increased to 60 percent (Pettit & Western, 2004, p.164). This leads to another pathway to incarceration – poor schools.

School to Prison Pipeline: Schools are Failing

As mentioned previously, Pettit & Western (2004) analyzed race and inequality within the criminal justice system. Another factor they investigated was the education level of those incarcerated. They found that “like incarceration rates, the cumulative risks of imprisonment fall with increasing education” (p.160).

Winn and Behizadeh (2011) provide a concise summary of the school to prison pipeline literature. They delve into literacy as a civil right, and how this right has been denied to many students in poor, urban, predominantly minority populated areas.  The authors note that a “focus on basic skills, remediation, and overzealous test preparation” are the problems faced by classrooms populated by students of color (p.150). They go on to chide the irony of No Child Left Behind – meant to close the achievement gap, but only widening it by implementing a decreasingly rigorous curriculum meant only to prepare students for high-stakes testing, not critical thinking (p.152). Such curriculum has been criticized for its “subordination of knowledge and identity historically experienced by marginalized groups” (Lipman, 2008 in Winn & Behizadeh, 2011, p.152). The curriculum described brings to mind Freire’s notion of “banking education”, in which the oppressed are merely fed knowledge by their teacher rather than engaging in critical and empowered thinking. It is this sort of “banking”-type schooling that the authors’ claim promotes high dropout rates that can lead to incarceration – i.e., the school-to-prison pipeline.

In addition to what can be considered poor curriculum in urban public schools, they are also becoming criminalized spaces. Thompson (2010) notes that the tenth largest police department in the nation is the New York City public school’s (p.711). Urban schools’ focus on punishment results in learning environments that are interrupted by police involvement that leads to “arrests for minor noncriminal violations of school rules” (New York Civil Liberties Union, cited in Thompson, 2010, p.711). This increase in punitive philosophy further illustrates Pettit & Western’s (2004) conclusion that the criminal justice system is increasingly becoming a part of poor, lower-educated, African American males’ lives. An extreme example of the criminalization of schools can be found in Lizbet Simmons’(2009) investigation into a school that literally takes place in a prison – all the students are adolescent black men.

While there is no clear reason for the drastic increase in prison populations, many researchers claim it was not due to an increase in crime, but to the institutionalized reasons stated above. These reasons include a changing notion of what constitutes a crime (criminal justice changes through increased arrests and sentencing laws) as well as an increased targeting of minority populations, particularly African American men, and a failing urban school system. That being said, further investigation in the relation between increased incarceration rates and claimed decreased crime rates is warranted.

It is apparent from this limited description of mass incarceration that this is a complicated issue with many entrenched and difficult institutional and political problems. How could improving and changing educational programs in prison alleviate the innately discriminatory policies put in place by those in power? In an April 2011 discussion with Cornel West at a Princeton conference on mass incarceration, Michelle Alexander stated that nothing short of revolution would change these policies (“Imprisonment of a Race” keynote discussion, March 25, 2011). Her statement underlines the complexity of the problem – something I do not wish to cast aside. I merely want to explore the question: what is prison education’s role in this problem?

A bit of what’s kept me away…

This past semester hurt. It was stressful – full of reading, reading, some writing, working,  more reading, more working, and then an excruciating amount of writing. I attempted to immerse myself in researching the criminal justice system, its inequalities, and the educational opportunities found in the system. So I took a break. I went bowling and played skee-ball and drank beer. I read fiction! Well, I think I’m ready to try to get back to it…and I feel I need to get back to it.

As an exercise in returning to the thinking and writing that exhausted, but impassioned me, I’m going to start posting parts of my final paper and then use those posts to (hopefully) expand on the research and writing I began.

Here’s the introduction to my final paper from my spring seminar. Every student took the semester to research and write on a topic of their choice. It was a history of social issues class experiment, so the professor said. I enjoyed him and the class very much, even while it left me a bit confused and tired. I’m looking at this paper as an extension of my first paper on the topic of literacy education in juvenile justice facilities that first sparked my interest in all things criminal justice and prison reform. The research found in that paper will need to be re-examined and dug into again as well.

This paper takes a broader and deeper look at the criminal justice system itself and how education intersects with the system. Since I currently live in Indiana, I grounded the introduction in the recent failed efforts for sentencing and prison reform in Indiana. The paper takes a different turn, but luckily conclusions are for tying things together (no matter how far-fetched it may seem). Anyway, here’s this:

 Mass Incarceration & Education: Investigating Intersections


            Throughout the United States, as the recession continues to deplete state budgets, state legislatures are reevaluating their expensive incarceration practices. Indiana is one state being lauded for their proposed reforms (“Fewer Prisoners, Safer Hoosiers”, Indianapolis Star, Jan. 14, 2011; “Indiana’s Answer to Prison Costs”, New York Times, Jan. 17, 2011) to reduce prison populations and recidivism in an effort to curb costs. Interestingly, there is no mention of education programs as a means to decrease recidivism rates within the Indiana reform proposal (Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSGJC), 2010), despite research claiming education’s ability to do so (Steurer & Smith, 2003; Vacca, 2004). The need for education programs in prison is apparent when one looks at the literacy rates of incarcerated adults. The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy test showed that the prison population generally scored lower on the test than adults in the general population (Greenberg, Dunleavy, & Kutner, 2007, p.29). In addition, minorities in the prison populations scored lower than Caucasian prison populations (p.30). As 730,000 prisoners were released in 2009 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2010), it is important to consider the literacy levels of those entering the work force, along with the multitude of additional factors impeding their ability to gain employment and avoid prison.

Investigating the underlying issues of mass incarceration, one sees that the reasons for the increase in prison population are muddied. Every state has different sentencing laws and different ways of utilizing their prisons and prison populations (CSGJC, 2010). For example, the minimum sentence for someone charged in Indiana for selling three grams of cocaine is 20 years; in Texas, the minimum sentence is two years (CSGJC, 2010). Because of the great variance among state laws and institutions, I will attempt to use Indiana as a focal point in the debate going on across the country, while also using examples from other states for comparison. Many questions are asked throughout this paper and many issues cannot be addressed as thoroughly as I would have liked due to the limited scope of the paper. These issues include the nuances found in different facilities – federal and state institutions, juvenile correctional facilities, minimum and maximum facilities. Issues of gender, age, and mental health are also beyond the scope of this paper, but important to recognize when investigating prison education.  Yet, I hope that the unanswered inquiries in this paper will provide opportunities for further research as educators, policy makers, and those in criminal justice seek solutions to the problem of mass incarceration in the United States.

This  paper will discuss the problem of mass incarceration, how education has been lauded as a way to decrease recidivism that furthers mass incarceration, as well as question current educational programs in prisons. Given its current state, this paper will then examine potential ways that, through the use of student voices and different pedagogical theories focused on literacy, most notably Paulo Freire, the prison institution can reform its educational practices in a way that could potentially further decrease recidivism.

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