By Christopher Zoukis
At a recent graduation in Arkansas, there were no mortarboards and gowns allowed — those could hide weapons. Excited family members were told to calm down and be seated when their cheers got too rowdy. There were locks, gates and plenty of security, but that didn't dampen the enthusiasm over the event, where 641 inmates of the state's prison schools were graduating, and Governor Asa Hutchinson was speaking — the only graduation speech request he accepted this year.
It’s easy to see why. This graduating class achieved much more than GEDs. During the 2010-2011 school year, the Arkansas prison schools' graduation ceremony boasted 942 achievers. Two years ago, there were just 233. Why? The test got a lot harder. The test switched from paper to digital in 2014. Not only were many inmates unfamiliar with computerized systems, the questions themselves had become more complex and detailed. As Governor Hutchinson said in his speech, it wasn’t “your granddaddy's GED.”
In an interview with Arkansas Online, inmate Christopher Lamont Roberts admitted to dropping out of school to sell drugs, and now with three children to raise, he decided to practice what he preaches to them, and get an education. He failed on the first try, but passed on the second. Roberts was moved to tears about the 22 years it took to get his high school education.
"It's important to the state of Arkansas that you have a future that's filled with opportunity," Governor Hutchinson told the graduates. "I hope that's what motivates you (to learn), as it increases your opportunity when you get out of here."
Roberts says attaining his GED would enable him to be a productive citizen following his release. Currently, about 70 percent of incarcerated adults do not have a high school diploma. This fact feeds the school-to-prison pipeline problem, where barriers to education increase one's risk of entering the criminal justice system as either a juvenile delinquent or adult inmate. Lack of education also plays a part in recidivism.
It is estimated that by 2020, 65 percent of all the jobs in America will require post-secondary education and/or training that is built on a high school diploma. Only 36 percent of jobs will have a base requirement of a diploma. That leaves few jobs that can be successfully performed without graduating from high school or getting a GED.
When a prison system is designed to rehabilitate inmates, providing an education is vital for many reasons. The more educated inmates there are, the less recidivism. The less recidivism, the lower the costs to support prisons and prisoners, not to mention a lower crime rate when inmates are reformed before release. But the benefits of prison education go beyond economic issues; inmates in educational programs often begin to see themselves in a different light. No matter what circumstances brought them into the criminal justice system, as they study, they begin to envision a brighter future after release. They can imagine themselves being self-reliant and able to support a family. The sense of accomplishment instils pride and self-worth. Isn’t that some of what rehabilitation is all about?
The Arkansas prison graduates prove that despite challenges, incarcerated Americans are willing to fight for their right to be educated. The test may be harder, the medium of delivery may change, but the fact that inmates keep embracing the opportunity to learn proves that educational programs are of value. These graduates may not have their freedom right now, but with a GED in hand, what they have is the possibility of opportunities waiting on the outside. And for most inmates, being empowered to hope beats the hell out of hopelessness every time.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.