Voices Missing in the Discussion on Prison Education

I started my research project last spring in order to uncover the voices of prisoners experiencing educational opportunities in prison. Of course, there were voices missing from the research. Who doesn’t participate in educational programs? And why aren’t they participating – whether it’s their own choice or not? Most articles I read focus on those already in classes, thus a huge population of inmates are not getting their say. In order to understand how we can better tailor educational programs to the greater population of prisoners, the literature must expand to include non-participants views of education and educational programs and how they may benefit from them.

Many articles I found come from those teaching college level students, so there is a lack of voices coming from students at lower literacy levels. This is especially important considering the large number of inmates who are not high school graduates, and thus are not able to take college courses. When working at the county jail, this was a huge concern for me. There were students who couldn’t read above a fifth grade level. What support were they receiving in a GED preparation class? Not much. There was little time for one-on-one tutoring and no one available that was well-trained in adult basic literacy. Classes were structured on workbook activities. As I attempted to work on larger, differentiated group lessons, it was a struggle. They were used to hiding their inabilities through individual work. I wish I could have spent more time breaking down that fear of failure. Is this one of the reasons people drop out of prison education programs? What do those who do not succeed in prison education programs think about the classes they attend? What would “success” mean to a lower literacy level student? I worked with a man who simply wanted to be able to read the letters he received from his children. What sort of support does he want/need? These are just a few of the questions that should be asked when discussing the relevance and success of prison education programs.

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