New Ways of Education & Students’ Perspectives on Educational Programs

Finally! The exciting part of my paper – the voices of those in prison education and how those voices can propel us to think of new ways to teach (and learn) in prison. While these are all secondary sources, they are a starting point and an inspiration as I begin my own research (someday…). A good friend and I were discussing research and settled on “good research equating to investigative journalism”. While I think it depends on the purpose of your research (whether it be experimental, a synthesis, or theoretical, etc.), I felt I had the most fun and found the most rewarding, this section of my paper. When writing, it felt like investigative journalism, and I yearned to speak to people myself. I kept unearthing questions. I’m still cogitatin’ a post on research/educational research and storytelling…I know you can’t wait!

 There are several sections to this part of the paper, so I’ve just included the introduction and the first section, asking “why education?”

New Ways of Education and Students’ Perspectives on Educational Programs

“The coercive and authoritarian milieu of the prison emphasizes submissiveness over thinking, and creates an environment antithetical to learning.”

– Richard Arbenz (1994), former student of the Soledad Prison College Program (in Rose & Voss, 2003, p.143)

Unfortunately, my search of the literature resulted in few rigorous quantitative studies seeking to answer the question, “What do student inmates think about education in prisons?” The majority of articles that discussed students’ opinions on education were essays of anecdotal personal experiences. A few of these used more rigorous ethnographic and qualitative research designs. This is not to say that voices are diminished because of a lack of rigorous research, but that again, as Terry (2003) states, we can benefit from writing that deals with “the real-life situations of human beings” (p.110).

Again, prisons and their educational programs vary greatly across state, and even county, lines. Also, due to the vulnerability, diversity, and difficulty in maintaining consistent research populations, rigorous experimental random sample studies are rare. Much can depend on whether the institution encourages a rehabilitative culture or a punitive one. Therefore, while reflecting on the literature described below, I hope not to generalize but to provide examples of themes I found in the perspectives that could inform future research and stakeholders in prison education. Perhaps by examining these voices new opportunities to reframe the debate on prison education can arise, giving inmates some say in the opportunities afforded to them.

Another question worth exploring within the voices of prison education: If schools – largely urban schools – that implement poor instruction failed students before they came to prison, as mentioned above, why would education programs in prison continue similar means of instruction? As voices of inmates are woven throughout the following pages, so are new possibilities for literacy instruction that include Freire’s theoretical framework, a potentially powerful theory for the marginalized population found in prison.

Why Education?

Throughout the literature students expressed their motivation (or at times, lack thereof) to participate in educational programs while incarcerated. Some may enter to get time off their sentence if the state incentivizes education, yet others may enter the classroom merely out of boredom (Terry, 2003).

Tewksbury and Stengel (2006) administered a close-ended question survey investigating student perceptions of education programs to 281 inmates enrolled in educational programs – academic and vocational – at the Kentucky State Reformatory, a medium security facility holding approximately 1,900 inmates. Forty-one percent of those surveyed reported dropping out of school prior to tenth grade (p.18). Interestingly, the motivation of the prisoners in the two types of educational programs differed. Forty-nine percent of prisoners in the academic programs stated their main reason for participating was “to feel better about myself”, twenty-nine percent stating it was “to get a job when I get out”. In contrast, only twenty percent of those participating in vocational programs stated “to feel better about myself” as the main motivation, and fifty-three percent stated “to get a job when  I get out” as the reason (p.19).

In his series of interviews with six inmates in Adult Basic Education classes, Muth (2008) found students were motivated to prove to those outside that they were not stupid. These inmates have been stigmatized by their family members outside and look to education to change that.

They don’t want to come up and see me [in prison]. They say, “No…She was a bad mama.”…I want to be much more when I walk out this door. I got papers – lots of papers – to go home…and show everybody –this is what I’ve been doing since I been in prison. – female inmate (Muth, 2008, p.266)

Along with this motivation to prove others wrong and make others proud, there are voices of students working for themselves, as well as for others. A male student inmate in Muth (2008) wants not only to prove his sister wrong, but also: “I want to be able to read. I want to be able to look at things and, you know, and read it” (p.266). Another inmate, this one female, states: “I have changed within myself. I got tired of being locked up for fighting. My daughter came to visit me and I saw that she was growing up. I realized that I had to grow up as well if I didn’t want her to wind up like me” (Maker, 2004, p.108). Jarvis, in Hall and Killacky’s (2008) series of interviews with student inmates, says: “So my next move was to get in school and get my GED. Everybody in my family got it but me. I wanted to get that for my mom and me too” (p.306).

This sense of empowerment through self-initiated and motivated learning is a goal of Freire’s philosophy of liberation education. 

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