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The Value of Education While Behind Bars

The lack of education is frequently a common denominator in the continuous cycle of incarceration. Poverty and being of minority descent quickly follows.

The tragedy begins with the introduction of “mass incarceration” in the 1970’s leading to a tenfold increase in the prison population by the early 1990’s. Soon after, school’s disciplinary actions started to reflect “zero tolerance” policies.

As a result, in 1997 approximately 68% of state prison inmates did not complete high school nor did another 75% of youth under the age of 18 who were sentenced to adult prisons pass the tenth grade (Wald et al. 2013, 11). To continue, juvenile delinquency courts on average handled nearly nine thousand cases involving roughly 6,205 youths aged ten to seventeen. 78% of the cases involved minorities: African Americans (68 percent) or Latinos (10 percent) (Balfanz 2001,73).

In the present-day of 2018, the imbalance created by the government is still witnessed in public schools throughout the country.

The purpose of confinement is to rehabilitate an individual in preparation of becoming a productive citizen in society. However, once a person enters the system- recidivism becomes a natural occurrence. Nevertheless, in-prison programs encouraging academic advancement assist in reversing one’s chances of recidivism (the act of returning to prison).

While reading the chapter Death of a Street-Gang Warrior, author Paul Perry described the powerful impact higher learning had on his mindset in prison.

As a once self proclaimed “slow learner”, Paul didn’t have a knack for schoolwork. In reality, the author was distracted due to violence at home. By the age of 15 he’d already experienced a total of seven arrests and multiple suspensions.

Soon after, Paul was sentenced to prison for involvement with a gang-related death of a rival. While serving time his emotions remained numb to the reality of his consequences. In 1982, with classes through SCI-Dallas and the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program (Temple University) he later became embarrassed to admit his involvement with criminal behavior.

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program in particular helped the author develop an understanding of his inner harmony. The teachings included a bonding and group element with outside citizens similar to a familial sensation. Hearing past stories and revelations from others soothed Paul’s own self-examination. He now understood his underlying anger and disconnection between his mind and heart. Fortunately, his college experience was financially supported by the government’s Pell Grant. However, in more recent decades prison education programs are disappearing unexpectedly due to lack of funding.

On September 19th, 2018 Anthro 560: Cultures of Incarceration visited the John H. Boner Community Center in Indiana to engage in dialogue with reentering citizens (formerly incarcerated). During this opportunity, some truths about the Indiana prison system were revealed. From the panel’s accounts, rehabilitative resources such as substance abuse counseling, psychological therapy, vocational learning and higher education either disappeared or were performed by inadequate individuals.

A few ladies on the panel were capable of completing their bachelor degrees before cuts were installed. Each appreciated the difference higher education made for life after prison. It provided a sense of purpose, focus, stability and foundation for a new mental framework. Academics also made career avenues open with less resistance.

On the contrary, another panel member expressed how their classes halted in the middle of the semester during their 2nd year. I was shocked. As a certified nerd, I can’t imagine the frustration and disappointment felt, especially given the possibility some inmates face a lifetime in confinement. Education teaches an individual how to think freely. Education equals freedom.

The positive impact of receiving academic support while behind bars was confirmed, in Liberating Minds: The Case for College in Prison by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann. The experience of incarceration can create mental frailty causing loneliness, isolation, anxiety, repressed aggression ect.

The prison system uses dehumanizing techniques in an attempt to adjust offenders behavior by offering limited mental stimulation. There are only basic jobs available like laundry cleaning and simple literary or GED courses. With overcrowded populations, physical/sexual abuse and raised tensions disputes can erupt into violence between prison mates.

Successfully, the study showed the introduction of college courses replaced the explosive pending aura with “peace and disciplined”. The director for Correctional Educational Programs at Indiana State University, Jaime Houston, stated "inmates pursuing college courses were the best-behaved populations". College courses increased prison safety by decreasing boredom and unoccupied time.

For those facing lengthy sentences, stories such as Michael Santo’s prove the rehabilitation in-prison education programs can supply. After being sentenced to 45 years, for drug dealing Santo’s has earned a bachelors from Mercer University and a master’s degree from Hofstra University. More recently, he acted as an in-house lawyer helping inmates prepare for release after prison.

Without a college education, I can only speculate some indid possibly spent 45 years with an idle mind.

Overall, I believe education on all academic spheres is a basic human right no one should be denied. It fosters empowerment. Society cannot demand damaged people to improve with no effort or compassion on our own behalf. Many incarcerated citizens are behind bars due to lack of knowledge/information not receive during childhood years, i.e. factors leading to the school to prison pipeline.

By offering higher education in prisons, the government's goal of "restoration" would be achieved. I'm happy to hear Pell Grants may be accessible for prisoners once more nearing 2020. I slowly see the World geared towards a more harmonious state. This small effort is proof.

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