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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