Archive for the 'prison reform' Category

Educating those outside the prison gates

As I finished my research last semester (it’s never really over though, is it?), I knew how much more work I had to do in order to fight the forces brewing against rehabilitation and meaningful criminal justice reform. The systemic injustice can’t simply be overthrown by educating on the inside – all of us need to work harder as advocates and educating those on the outside.

Shakespeare Behind Bars PosterMovies like “Shakespeare Behind Bars” – a documentary featuring the inmates of Luther Luckett correctional facility in Kentucky – provides a prism of nuance not usually afforded the incarcerated. Viewers witness transformation, regret, and redemption – all within the context of literature, collaboration, and learning. All these men want is to be known for something other than what put them in prison.

“This American Life” devoted an entire episode to the same topic of inmates performing Shakespeare. The episode, titled “Act V”, digs into the prisoners’ work on the fifth act of Hamlet. The intelligence and life experiences that inform the performers’ analysis and performance of the characters is astute and memorable. Their thoughts are worth sharing with those on the outside the prison gates, and we all should be listening.

During her lively talk on mass incarceration with Dr. Cornel West at a conference last spring, Michelle Alexander stated “what’s needed now is a lot of consciousness raising and public education…”. She later states that we need nothing short of  a revolution to change the system.

Without further ado, here are the last parts of my research paper, including the conclusion, which I hope provides some context to this and previous blog posts. By simply publishing this paper on this site, I’ve had the opportunity to reexamine my research and thoughts on Freire, education, and prison. It’s motivated me to continue working toward a more equitable criminal justice educational system. I look forward to more reflection and writing and thank anyone who’s taken the time to read.

Educating Those on the Outside

“I wish the findings throughout this course [Convict Criminology] could be used to help make a stand and statement to the rest of the world about how bad the criminal justice system really is. Because those of us on the inside have voices that could prove very valuable, and we need to be heard.”—28-year-old female prisoner (Richards et al., 2008, p.134)

It is also evident through the writings of prison educators that they have not only educated their students, but have been educated by them. Freire would have applauded their efforts to fight alongside the prisoners/oppressed rather than simply fight for them. There must be a level of trust though, claims Freire. “A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions n their favor without that trust” (p.60). In order to fulfill a commitment to Freirian ideals of education, the teacher must be open to trusting and learning from the student, again sharing power and becoming partners in learning.

Richards et al. (2008) and Vasudevan et al. (2010) allow the voices of those caught up in the correctional system to educate those who may have little to no contact or context of what is happening the system. Richards and his colleagues begin with those who will be working within the system, providing them with a perspective that they may not have received – that of the inmate. The course is taken by both sociology and criminal justice students and their inmate counterparts. As mentioned above, their required reading is a collection of scholarly articles called Convict Criminology, many of which are written by ex-inmates who are now using their past experiences to inform the debate of mass incarceration and the conditions found within the institution. The following quotes from students indicates that the course is succeeding in illustrating the nuances of the criminal justice system and those entangled within it:

“The course reminded me not to be so quick to judge and that there are a multitude of ways a person can end up behind bars”— University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh student

“It gave prisoners a voice and humanized them in a way that I have never encountered.” –University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh student

The Insight Project informs the general public of its work through a series of performances of the play in a New York City theater (Vasudevan et al., 2010). Those working with the students daily began to see the youth “as actors and engaged participants” (p.62), and the performances allowed students to share that with a broader audience. Here students not only get to demonstrate their new identities as actors and writers, but they share their work with an audience that may know little about where the students came from. Every performance ends with student actors and writers fielding questions from the audience. This places the students in the role of teacher, the audience learning from the Insight Project participants’ experiences.

The Insight Project, as well as numerous other programs that the students cited throughout this paper participated in, offered opportunities for student agency in learning. Freire’s philosophy that cites literacy learning as a tool for liberation and agency could be seen amid these programs as well as educators sought to open classrooms for dialogue, connect curriculum to students, and learn with and from their students.


I recognize that this paper, while dreary at first, ends up with perhaps too rosy of a perspective – speaking of mutual respect, learning, and shared power within a diverse institution stricken with injustices. Of course it’s not as simple as changing educational philosophies and pedagogies, and there are many factors outside of the classroom that affect what takes place inside it. I hope that I communicated that these suggestions are simply a potential step toward a more rehabilitative and humane institution.

During her lively talk on mass incarceration with Dr. Cornel West, Michelle Alexander stated “what’s needed now is a lot of consciousness raising and public education…”(Chang, 2011). One way of raising others’ consciousnesses is to inform them of different perspectives, including those who are incarcerated. As noted above, several ex-inmates, as well as their teachers, have begun the difficult work of informing others about the injustices of the criminal justice system, attempting to whittle away the stigma that is associated with the incarcerated identity. Yet, these examples also show that this information hasn’t been disseminated only by those in power, but by those who are oppressed, through a partnership of mutual respect between inmates and educators. Freire (2010) states: “the correct method lies in dialogue. The conviction of the oppressed that they must fight for their liberation is not a gift bestowed by the revolutionary leadership, but the result of their own conscientizacao” (p.65). In other words, educators merely create with students an environment for students to achieve consciousness and liberation, not teach them consciousness and liberation.

So even though ex-convicts face numerous barriers, a loss of rights upon release, discrimination, and “institutions of education and justice are often characterized as sites of oppression, there are hopeful and generative possibilities for imaginative education within the institutional walls” (Vasudevan et al., 2010, p.64). The programs and student voices discussed above demonstrate these possibilities.

As states including Indiana consider reforms to save money, let’s hope they also consider the intentions behind cost cutting by further shifting their philosophy to a rehabilitative stance that values education as a means to empower inmates, not merely prevent them from reentering the state’s increasingly expensive correctional facilities.

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.

Teachers as partners in prison education

I believe that teachers are partners in learning alongside their students, rather than dispensers of knowledge to their students. I’m very concerned with the uneven power relations that can occur between student and teacher. You’re most likely aware that this is part of my educational theory based upon my admiration of Paulo Freire who despised “banking” education. The next section of my paper discusses research and theory demonstrating that mutual respect between student inmates and teachers is an important factor in student trust and learning potential. This seems common sense to many, but consider the prison environment where inmates’ rights are stunted and their humanity often stripped from them: an educator who interacts with them as though they are an equal can lead to educational and emotional breakthroughs for student inmates.

(Again, you can refer to my last post for a link to the google doc that contains all references made in this post. Thanks!)

Teachers as Partners

Allday (2006) sought to discover inmates’ perceptions on teacher effectiveness through a survey of 371 inmates in South Carolina. Through a series of statistical analysis, survey results showed that students felt that teachers who showed a “desire for student success” and “care” for the student, were ones they felt they “learned the most” from (p.741). While the survey questions students about K-12 teachers [though only 20% of the respondents had completed high school (Allday, 2006, p.731)], the results can be helpful in showing what factors are seen as important not only to those at-risk of entering prison, but those in prison education programs.

Freire is relevant here as well, for his insistence on student agency in literacy learning is important in that it shifts power from the teacher to the student, calling for educators to be “partners of the students” (Freire, 2010, p.75).  Terry (2003) describes the educator experience that led to his reevaluation of education and identity. “[H]er hands-on teaching style was extremely beneficial…” (p. 109) Teachers “treated us like human begins, as equals…in class, at least temporarily, we got a reprieve from the prison oppression” (p.102-3) This sentiment was also communicated in the inmate’s letter to the college (quoted extensively above) when she thanked him for being “warm and human and kind…who likes learning from me” (Maker, 2004, p.111).

Students in Rose and Voss’s (2003) college program not only asked teachers to “treat inmates as if they are real people instead of crash dummies” (p.147), but to be rigorous. One student asks for “no sympathy…no compromise in standards! Accommodate only those with a desire to learn” (p.146). Another student said the best teaching style within a correctional facility is one that is “very firm…To be constructive without criticism….maintain consistency” (p.147), while another student states that “teaching at a correctional facility requires a teacher to be fexable [sic] taking into account the restrictions that are demanded” (p.147). This diversity of traits described by student inmates reflects the diversity of expectations correctional educators find in their classroom.

Tewksbury & Stengel (2006) state near the end of their article on inmate student perceptions of prison education: “most importantly, inmates understood the connection between success in the academic programs and success after release” (p.23). But is success in academics enough? What will success mean for each student involved in educational programs? Will success in the Insight Project program translate to successful employment upon release from the criminal justice system? Is gainful employment what constitutes success for a participant in the Insight Project? I think that these are important questions when considering all the programs described above. Therefore, as mentioned above, we must consider not only the type of educational programs being administered, but also additional factors that can affect a prisoner’s reentry into society. Visher & Travis (2003) provide a helpful framework when considering these factors, some of which have been touched on throughout this paper. First, they suggest examining four dimensions of the transition from prison to community: individual characteristics; family relationships; community contexts; and state policies. In addition, they advise that those interested in studying reentry consider four phases of the inmate’s life: pre-prison circumstances; in-prison circumstances; immediate post-prison experiences; and post-release integration experiences.

Classroom environment in prison: Open for reconstruction of identity

I love the Murtagh quote found at the beginning of this next section of my final paper. This part focuses on inmates’ and educators’ perspectives on how open and authentic classroom environments can lead to new possibilities for learning and growing in knowledge. Through dialogue – whether it be between fellow inmates, with a teacher, or with a text – student inmates can critically think through decisions, identities, and ideas. This section includes some quotes from student inmates that provide insight into the benefits of such a classroom environment.

If you’re interested, here’s a link to a google doc of the references found in these posts of my final paper:

Classroom Environment: Open for Reconstruction of Identity

While the means of expression vary – drama, writing, reading – the process is similar. Educators finding success with students who are incarcerated, or at risk of incarceration, are providing environments that allow for self-expression in a way that mainstream schooling may not.

Woven within many of the accounts and quotations from people who are incarcerated is the concept of identity and how that identity can be reevaluated within a classroom. Joseph Murtagh writes in his essay about teaching in prison:

“We can deny prisoners many things, liberty, society, citizenship, but short of execution the only thing we can’t deny a prisoner is the right to atone for his sins. If there’s one thing to be learned from teaching in a prison, it’s that this kind of atonement can and actually does happen, but that it doesn’t happen in the solitary darkness of a prison cell; it happens in the open space of a classroom, where in the company of his peers an  inmate can craft a story anew about himself that puts some distance on the old story, the story of the murderer, the dealer, the pervert, the thief.” (p.75).

Murtagh’s classroom, as well as the programs and educators below, present students with spaces to “craft a story anew” about him or herself.

The Insight Project, part of a New York City Alternative to Incarceration Program, includes students who are involved in the criminal justice system (Vasudevan, Stageman, Jay, Rodriguez, Fernandez, & Dattatreyan, 2010). Here students engage in storytelling, improvisation, and dramatic performances. Vasudevan et al. (2010) look to Maxine Greene’s (2000) notion that “expression through arts opens up spaces of possibility…to engage and nurture the work of the imagination and enact their “deliberative agency” in the ways in which they (re)write themselves (Dimitriadis & Weis, 2001)” (p.54).  As the improvisations turned to scripts and rehearsed lines, students began to critically view the characters they had created, considering multiple perspectives pushed by critical dialogue with their teacher. Thus, rehearsals “became spaces for the youth to re-imagine the script they would perform on stage, as well as spaces within which to rehearse and re-script their own life narratives” (p.62).  After performances, students engaged in talkbacks, where audience members would ask the students questions. The talkbacks provided another venue for reauthoring, allowing students “to portray themselves outside of the stereotypes and familiar expectations of posturing that followed them across contexts” (p.63).

In addition to providing open spaces for students to author themselves, the program takes the Freirian notion of generative themes mentioned above. Each script begins with the words created during student improvisation, thus plays are built upon the cultural knowledge and experiences of the students – not of the teachers.

The student’s letter mentioned above includes a section that also evaluates different identities and how those identities play out depending on context:

When I return to the old boulevards, the ratty tenements, the crackhead avenues, I will be in the same old places, but it will not be the same old me. I am concerned that when I return to the environment of my childhood, the desperate choices, the animalistic drive to survive, the bullshit, will take over. But the new me, the educated me, will know that is what will be happening. I am learning about myself as I write about myself, literally at this moment. (Maker, 2004, p.111)

Another woman inmate tackles her mental illness, how it is perceived in prison, and how education has reshaped this part of her identity:

Now when the women call me insane, I reply, “I may be insane, but I can help you with your essays.” Education keeps me motivated. It gives me a reason to stay alive. I’ve got my mental illness, my hallucinations, my low self-esteem, but I’ve also got my degree. I can write. I have something to say that people need to know. I am a writing tutor for the college program. I am a writer.” (Maker, 2004, p.112).

Here is an excerpt from another woman inmate, around 50 years old, using writing to discover her identity:

Why do I want to write? After twenty years of being incarcerated for killing an abusive husband, I don’t have much belief in the system but I do believe in myself, and it’s that part of me that I’m writing to. I need to learn about myself before I get out. (Shafer, 2001, p.76)

As the research considers ways to make classrooms environments open to the writing and shifting of identities, it will be valuable to learn about the identities that are being learned within the prison, but outside the classroom. Terry (2003) describes the difficulty he had learning to survive within an identity that didn’t go by the “convict code”. He describes how one learns how to survive in jail, only have to relearn how to survive in the outside world once released (p.106). Vaseduvan et al. (2010) also acknowledges the learned literacies and behaviors from the street that are also valued in the tough criminal justice system. These learned behaviors then end up in prison education classrooms, at times clashing with the language and identities of teachers and other students. Mikhal Bakhtin (1994) provides a basis for understanding that language (part of one’s identity) is constantly evolving through conversations with others and with ourselves. His notion of heteroglossia also pertains to the incarcerated as they struggle against a dominant discourse of which they are not a part. By making students aware of the dominant discourse in a way that highlights this struggle, rather than asks them to assimilate to the discourse, students may come away with new meaning.

Furthermore, throughout the literature many inmates speak of having difficult or poor experiences in schools that leave them with little faith in the benefits of schooling in particular, and education, in general. One researcher, Keith Sullivan, has named this concept “educational trauma” (2004), and defines it as “a general sense of incapacity caused by years of poor educational experiences and failure” (p.387). Sullivan goes on to purport that these years of trauma result in “low self-esteem and frustration” that manifests itself in misbehavior and a resentment of authority and school which are then incorrectly “regarded as symptoms of failure” by the school (p.388). This concept easily relates to the school to prison pipeline mentioned above.

Muth (2008) discusses an article that points to how this trauma may affect future attempts of learning. Even if the pedagogy differs from the schooling that had traumatized them in the past because they may in fact be more comfortable with that type of curriculum: “it appeared that the students had internalized years of failure in school, and without the confidence in themselves as thinkers they were very open to the safe routine of workbooks” (Boudin, 1993, p.216 cited in Muth, 2008, p.265). Muth’s (2008) interviews revealed that student inmates saw the classroom as a place where their identity should be repressed – not an open place where students can construct their own learning.  Vasudevan et al. (2010) also mentioned the troubled school pasts of some students and how “arts programs have the potential to recast problematic labels such as “academic deficiencies” through the lenses of dignity, self worth, and confidence (Leard & Lashua, 2006” (p.55). Whether it be a curriculum grounded in the arts or in science, prison education programs should consider a curriculum that connects with the student inmates.

Freire: A Framework for Empowered Learning in Prisons

The next section of my paper explores Freirian philosophy of education in the prison classroom. I’m still investigating Freire and the use of “liberation education” in an environment so devoid of freedom. There are many questions that arise, a few include: what if an inmate isn’t motivated to learn?  What about those students who have no interest in education? One of the most troubling issues that is impossible to address in the paper is the lack of voices from those who do not participate in prison education programs. At times I fear that the paper gets too positive – too sentimental for the possibilities posed by the prisoners who found value in education. What about the negative stories?

What I’ve read of Freire so far (which, I admit is not enough!), there is a focus on basic literacy. While there is a population in prison who are illiterate (larger than the illiterate general population), how do you implement Freirian ideals outside of basic literacy skills? In addition, what if students are expecting a traditional, teacher-led classroom? Should we push them past that state of mind if what they want is the traditional classroom? I know some of these words are loaded (“traditional” and “literacy” and “education”), and I hope that throughout my writing you’ve come to see a bit of what these words mean to me.

Here’s a brief description: “Traditional” relates to the formal schooling model that many of us have been exposed to – teacher-run classroom, some rote learning, unnecessary doses of direct instruction. “Literacy” is all-encompassing – I have a very broad notion of literacy that goes beyond reading and writing text and includes reading and producing visual cues and human behavior – we are constantly making meaning (and expanding on that meaning) through our interpretations of others’ actions, words, etc. And “education” – well, it’s what takes place inside and outside the classroom. I think “learning” is “education”. Whether we’re learning how to interact with the next-door neighbors or how to do long division – we are experiencing education.


Freire: A Framework for Empowered Learning

Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other. – Paulo Freire, 2010, p.72

Freire believes literacy is a critical tool of liberation for the oppressed to gain agency. Freire (2001) states: “[T]o acquire literacy is more than to psychologically and mechanically dominate reading and writing techniques. It is to dominate these techniques in terms of consciousness; to understand what one reads and to write what one understands; it is to communicate graphically” (p.622). His overall philosophy, seeing literacy as a tool for liberation, condemns rote learning and teacher-centered classrooms – classrooms in part to blame for higher dropout rates and increased prison populations (Winn & Behizadeh, 2011).  It encourages a culture of inquiry and critical thinking that asserts “an attitude of creation and re-creation, a self-transformation producing a stance of intervention in one’s context” (p.622). Freire (2001) wants students to “achieve critical consciousness so that they can teach themselves to read and write” (p. 627).

Winn and Behizadeh (2011) also note the importance of the Freirian idea of critical reading and writing skills as tools for transformation when discussing the disproportionate number of minority students who are in special education, suspended, or expelled (p.149).

Muth (2008) notes another tenet of Freire: the use of “problem-posing to engage learners in dialogue” (p.272). These conversations produce themes generated by the students and then used as the basis of literacy learning. Freire found success using culturally relative generative words and themes when working with adult basic literacy students in Brazil, (2001). “Generative themes are transformative, because literacy learners

…are aware of themselves and thus of the world [and]…exist in a dialectical relationship between the determination of limits and their own freedom. As they separate themselves from the world…as they locate the seat of their decisions in themselves and in their relations with the world and others, people overcome the situations which limit them. (Freire, 2002, p.99)” (Muth, 2008, p.272).

This concept of the dialectic as a means to transform the learner and the world around them is clearly illustrated by this female college student inmate’s letter to the president of the college who provided courses in prison:

College is making me realize that I can no longer blame my ignorance or lack of opportunity if after my release I should again stumble and fall and return to prison. My college education has destroyed the perceptions that I had lived by for so long. I always wanted to think that the things I did, the actions I took, were not my fault. They were the fault of society, of those who hated me because of my race, color, gender. The truth is now I have to see myself and acknowledge myself as an educated human being who is responsible for her own actions…For the first time in my life, I am actively dialoging with myself to find out who I truly am. I like sharing this with you, you who are an intellectual but who are also warm and human and kind and who seemed to like talking to me, who likes learning from me, that’s what you said after we had talked for awhile. (Maker, 2004, p.110-11)

While listening to the final draft essays of his class of incarcerated women, Shafer (2001) saw Freire’s idea that “freedom is acquired through conquest, not by gift. It is the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion, (Freire, 1991, p.31)” (p.80).Through the process of writing drafts and collaborating with other woman inmates, Shafer’s students presented “a true sense of control, introspection, freedom, and human understanding” (p.80).

For such transformations to take place, a classroom environment must be conducive to such dialogue, as well as utilize students’ self-generated literacies, and include teachers who seek partnerships with students rather than power over them. These themes are illustrated through the analysis of student inmates’ voices below.

(Next: Classroom Environment: Open for Reconstruction of Identity)

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. 

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.

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