A college education for inmates?

by Stephanie Chasteen on November 16, 2008

One of the great travesties of this nation, I think, is the complete lack of logic in how we treat criminals. Our criminal justice system sucks people in and makes it very hard for them to reintegrate back into society. We stick them in jail, where they lose their connections to community and become enmeshed in criminal culture. When they get out, it’s very hard for them to get a job, and much easier to cycle back into jail. Most incarcerations nowadays are actually due to parole violations rather than new crimes. I found out about this when I did a piece on prisoner recidivism (“Life Beyond Bars”) for Science & Spirit (a neat but now defunct magazine focusing on the intersection of science, religion and life). Here is an excerpt from that article:

The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate, with one of every seventy-five American men in jail or prison. There are more U.S. inmates now—2.1 million—than at any other time in history. This increase isn’t due to a crime wave; crime rates have actually fallen. Instead, criminals are serving longer sentences, and many return to prison to finish those sentences when they violate their parole. Two-thirds of parolees are rearrested within five years of their release. Most are rearrested within the first year, some within days. The end result is a huge surge in the prison population—a twofold increase per capita over the past twenty years.

There are also more prisoners being released than ever before: More than 600,000 will come home this year, the equivalent of the city of Boston being turned out onto America’s streets. The majority will have had no access to education, job training, or drug rehabilitation. They will exit the prison gates with a bus ticket and a few hundred dollars in gate money, and maybe a list of apartments or shelters. Most will return to crime-rich neighborhoods, and while they will likely be released into some sort of supervision, they won’t get as much help as in the past. Many parole officers act more like cops than social workers nowadays.

In 1984, Reagan eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners. Since this was the primary way that prison education programs were funded, this effectively ended all higher education opportunities for prisoners, making the road to reintegration really difficult (read more here). So instead of funding education and other programs to keep prisoners out of jail, we’re spending huge amounts of money on housing and feeding prisoners, to the tune of $32K per year.

Anyway, in the course of writing that article, I found out about a unique program in the country, the Prison University Project at San Quentin. A shoestring operation, it provides college courses as an extension of Patton University in Oakland. It’s the only degree-granting higher education program in all of California state prisons. All instructors are volunteers, and I volunteered for a few semesters as a math tutor. What an experience — to go through a half-hour of security clearance every time you entered, and classes could easily be canceled for a security lockdown.

Two inmates in the Prison University Project

Two inmates in the Prison University Project

Once inside we were in a room of, frankly, primarily Latino and African-American men, trying to teach basic arithmetic skills so that they could go on to take pre-algebra. I tried to teach fractions, and it was hard. We used fraction tiles (which are a physical representation of the different fractions, using pieces of squares or circles to represent 1/3, 1/4, etc.) I was impressed by these mens’ determination to learn, and willingness to be humble. They often wanted to be able to help their kids with their homework when they came to visit them at the prison. We didn’t know what it was that they had done to be sentenced (and were not supposed to ask), but the men in these classes had to earn it as a special privilege. These were well-behaved prisoners, and this was their only chance to do something intellectually challenging during their day — the rest of which was filled with a full-time job. Night classes for them were just as tiring, if not more so, as for the rest of us working stiffs who take night courses.

I write this because I just got a copy of the latest newsletter of the Prison University Project and, as always, they are in need of funds. They get no state or federal funding and rely entirely on individuals and foundations for support. I know times are tough, but if you are able, I highly recommend any small gift you can manage. It’s a wonderful program, and just it takes just $1000 to educate a single student for a year. Or, if you know of a private foundation that may be interested in this endeavor, please let us know! You can donate directly here, or email director Jody Lewen at info(at)prisonuniversityproject.org.

But of course the Prison University Project only serves those inmates at San Quentin, which is only one fish in a big sea of prisoners who want access to education.  Inmates who do manage to receive a degree join the lofty ranks such as Nelson Mandela and other famous inmates who completed a degree from prison.  Most of those were sponsored by a local university, though it’s not clear to me just how such an arrangement would work without an intermediary like the Prison University Project.


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