Education In Prison: A Spiritual Revolution America Needs

In the spring of 2015 Michelle Alexander addressed students and faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, the oldest free-standing Christian seminary in the United States. In her speech, which can be seen on YouTube, she names a "crisis of conscience in this country" born from the punitive impulse to punish and control people of color and poor people.

She is, of course, speaking of an impulse described with great clarity in her 2012 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Her assessment of this crisis -- the crisis of disadvantaging already disadvantaged people through the many levels of mass incarceration -- goes deeper than institutional reform.

Fittingly, in the halls of a birthplace of black liberation theology she summons the best of our collective conscience.

"Will we as a people rise to the challenge that a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, inter-faith experiment in democracy requires?" she asks. "Can we share a revolutionary understanding of who we are and what we owe each other?"

Echoes of Dr. King's struggle-weary perspective intentionally reverberate in her call. In a comment recorded by a journalist in 1967, King lamented, "For years I labored with the idea of reforming the institutions of the society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you have to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values."

I believe that for King and now Michelle Alexander, a brilliant yet humble activist attorney who wrote the manifesto condemning the racism of mass incarceration, the soul of the revolution must reinvigorate the body of change. This animation is utterly spiritual; that is, it is rooted in creative imagination, self-reflection, and the search for meaning.

In September of 1961 Dr. King wrote in his article, "The Time for Freedom Has Come" that "Negro students are coming together to understand that education and learning have become tools for shaping the future and not devices of privilege for an exclusive few. Behind this spiritual explosion is a shattering of a material atom." In that article he called out the radical and courageous movement of young people across the South for humanity, dignity and rights for black citizens.

When King described education as a spiritual explosion of a material atom, he named a force necessary for social change -- education -- and called it spiritual. Education is as spiritual as it is social, political and institutional. It transforms identities and actions. It fosters the deep, questioning exploration of who we are in relationship to others who connect with us in known or unknown ways. Education can be a deeply spiritual experience because it can be that bridge that connects us to our past, present and future selves for fulfillment and flourishing, individually and collectively.

This is the time for America soberly to acknowledge what the data displays, what Black Lives Matter protests, what Republican and Democrat legislators in many states are acknowledging, and what professionals connected to prison work experience daily. Our law enforcement, justice and penal systems are primary engines for the crisis we are experiencing.

Higher education for the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated is an extension of King's spiritual explosion of a material atom. In the age of an unprecedented prison population explosion caused by the Drug War and Tough on Crime cultures, higher education in prison is a paradigm for social change that has an enormous capacity -- and in my mind the most potential -- for transformation of individuals and communities. Higher education in prison can be for many who are incarcerated a path to wholeness and productivity in various areas of life.

Education, once a staple of correctional rehabilitation programs in prisons across the country, was exiled in the 1990s by President Clinton's signature on the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 which denied Pell Grants and other resources to prisoners. Since then, the incarcerated, their families, and their communities have suffered long-term consequences from this legislatively-caused wound.

Research suggests that the comprehensive social effects of mass incarceration include poverty, racial inequality, family stability, individual health, and community well-being.

Lack of job skills, diminished social modeling relationships, restrictions on participating in positive family values, gaps in developing professional self-esteem and worth, and preparedness to participate in democracy all shape the social world of the incarcerated when education is pulled as a democratic right and human need.

The view here is that the loss of access to higher education has done the most harm to the goals of both rehabilitative and retributive punishment models. In terms of rehabilitation, individuals are ill prepared to flourish in a society itself nourished and formed by the various kinds of knowledge experienced in higher education. In terms of retribution, it is frequently the family and community of the uneducated incarcerated person who is punished through collateral consequences, a clear violation of justice.

We have traded a modicum of crime reduction (the cause of which is debated) for an increase in social injustice. Not only is this a policy concern, but echoing Michelle Alexander, it is a crisis of conscience. It is also a spiritual concern for which a spiritual answer is needed.

I want to suggest that a multicultural, liberal arts education program in prison -- for the incarcerated, for officers, for prison administrators -- can be a powerful vehicle for values transformation not only for those behind bars, but for the society that locks them up.

How? By creating solidarity.

Sharon Welch argues that solidarity can emerge from the challenge of America's diversity when we focus not on how we are alike, but on how we interact. Our work in meeting each others' needs while respecting racial, ethnic, religious and ideological differences can create community. This is solidarity by contiguity rather than similarity. It is solidarity through relationship.

Education that respects and affirms differences (multicultural), that examines and analyzes the movements and forces of culture and society that have brought history to this moment (liberal arts), and that empowers the individual to make choices toward values of goodness and identify with justice (spiritual) can create the solidarity of contiguity of which Welch speaks.

Insiders and Outsiders, the incarcerated and the society that incarcerates them, are reunited even as the penal system seeks fragmentation. We are reunited through the task of education and the practice of virtues required of all parties for its success. Teachers, incarcerated students, officers, wardens, deans, education partners, and so on and so on, are brought into transformative relationships in the process of providing education in prison. It fosters democratic justice rather than disables it.

This is a piece of trying to figure what we owe each other as democratic citizens, whether we have broken laws or not. I believe it is a spiritual mandate for our times.