The case for higher education in prison [Interview]

One of the biggest challenges inmates face upon acclimating themselves to reentry life is having the educational background necessary in order to compete for a good job.   According to a nation wide study done by the US Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics, “49 percent of prisoners reported not having a high school diploma or GED… Furthermore, overall, 39 percent of prisoners attained lower levels of education than their parents” Some prisons, such as the San Quentin California State Prison, do offer basic adult education and high school diploma/GED programs for prisoners. However  it’s difficult enough already for most people who have not been to prison to find a job with simply a high school diploma, so inmates truly face an uphill battle.

Photo credit: user Pauk VIA creative commons license

Ariel view of San Quentin Prison (Photo credit: user Pauk VIA creative commons license)

In order to alleviate some of this burden, and to enrich the lives of prisoners who are interested in furthering their education, organizations like the Prison University Project are formed. According to their website, the Prison University Project (PUP) was founded “in the fall of 1996, with two classes, a volunteer coordinator, and no budget.” As of 2013, PUP now has a fully developed Associates Degree program with over 20 courses, 300 enrolled students, and a full staff of volunteer faculty.

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to interview a volunteer member of PUP who has been with the program for almost two years. Due to the nature of the program and current involvement, my interviewee has requested to remain anonymous, however I can attest that my interviewee is a former high school teacher for nearly 15 years and has worked for both a national criminal justice research non-profit and the California Judiciary.  We talked about San Quentin, PUP, and the current state of prisoner reentry work.

“I think that if all prisons were like San Quentin, we would at least have a fighting chance of cutting down on recidivism. There are so many resources in the Bay Area, and so many people willing to donate their time. Prisons that are far away from urban areas and hence a pool of volunteers or skilled workers (besides C.O.s) are really a dead end as far as I’m concerned. I think the volunteers make a huge difference at SQ.”

When PUP brings in volunteers to help prisoners in dire need of their service, it gives the prisoners the second-chance opportunity they so desperately need. If courts insist that an inmates sentence is indicative of the time they’ll need in order to rehabilitate properly for the crime they’ve committed, then a higher education should be the standard, at minimum, to help in that rehabilitation process.

For those of us outside of prison who might be critical of giving prisoners such wide access to education, my interviewee insists, “. . . can you imagine the difficulty of being used to being regulated, fed, housed, etc. (institutionalized) for “X” number of years, and suddenly be turned out on the street with your few belongings…?” “The world is spinning at a hugely increased pace— almost no inmates have computer skills, they are not “up to speed” literally and figuratively. I talk to many who want to re-establish themselves in the Bay Area because they know that returning to their old locations would be terrible for their recovery.”

Thinking about this subject from both sides of the spectrum, it’s understandable why some readers may not be inclined to give prisoners such educational opportunities. If a prisoner has committed a crime, then we should think of the victims who have suffered because of that. But when we think about these prisoners, who come into prison with a lack of education, and in many times from unfortunate or marginalized social circumstances, we must understand that educational training may be one of the best tools to help them from reoffending. If prisons can prepare inmates for reentry life through education and vocational programs, then it is necessary for each state to provide the best rehabilitation opportunities possible.


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