Let's Get Real: Prison Is No Place for Elitism

Targeting corruption in prison education programs without targeting it elsewhere only serves to limit options for an already-disadvantaged population without solving any wider problems.
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Two weeks ago, Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-Maryland) introduced the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act to the floor. The REAL Act would reinstate Pell grant eligibility for currently incarcerated students. The prison education world has been abuzz with this news, and some important questions have arisen: what does this mean for already-existing prison education programs? More importantly, what does it mean for the nearly 2.3 million people in correctional facilities who might want to pursue an education?

The academic community has raised several valid concerns. As someone who has been incarcerated, I'd like to address these concerns, which I believe to be well intentioned, but ultimately misguided.

One huge concern has been that lower-quality educational programs will actively exploit incarcerated students.

By arguing that incarcerated students will be treated unfairly if Pell grants return to prison, we are ignoring the broader trend of abuse, in which institutions often exploit Pell-eligible students on the outside as well. These institutions prey on poor communities and communities of color, and at College and Community Fellowship (CCF) where we support formerly incarcerated women who are in college; we've seen evidence of tremendous exploitation outside of prison. We can correct the broader trend of unethical practices -- namely, schools that offer poor education at a high cost. These schools should not be accredited or eligible for Pell funds. By addressing the trend instead of focusing on the possibility of in-prison exploitation, we solve the problem both inside and outside of correctional facilities. The quality of education should be regulated both inside AND out to qualify for Pell funding.

The problematic issue here is the practice of dealing with in-prison students in a highly specialized way -- restricting higher education access to a few elite programs further alienates those on the inside from the norms of society. Targeting corruption in prison education programs without targeting it elsewhere only serves to limit options for an already-disadvantaged population without solving any wider problems.

It's incredibly important to pay close attention to quality education on the inside. Having been inside myself -- a high school graduate stuck in a prison with no post-secondary options -- I argue that any attempt to create broader access to programming would be welcomed by those who currently have no educational alternatives.

Another concern is that correctional facilities might soon be filled with low-quality educational programming, with staff ill-equipped to give the support and care that the vulnerable prison population needs.

It would be wonderful if everyone qualified for Bard Prison Initiative or other intense liberal arts programs, but we know that many will not. Those who do not qualify for a Bard-caliber program could easily do well in a less rigorous community college program. Furthermore, not everyone has an interest in the contemplative life. Some just want to learn how to be a Computer Technician or gain some other marketable skill because they feel it's their best chance of escaping lifelong poverty.

That option should be readily available. If one of education's main concerns is helping students forge a sense of individuality, introspection and self-determination, then the choice to limit educational programs in prison as an attempt to "do what's best for them" proves antithetical to our ultimate goals. Just as students on the outside participate in educational programs of all levels, incarcerated students should also have a wide range of options -- every program should not be exclusive. While quality must not be ignored, we should agree on what we mean by "quality" and not confuse it for elitism. I would also like to point to this article, written by a man enrolled in an educational program at Attica: another voice on the inside arguing that any expansion of such programming would be beneficial for the prison population as a whole.

A third major concern is that the Departments of Correction will play a role in these programs that will take away valuable input power from the educators themselves.

Departments of correction will definitely need technical assistance from the academic community in order to form institutional partnerships that provide quality programming of all types. Hopefully, we can form partnerships that stabilize practices and lay out clear guidelines and expectations for the relationship between correctional officers and educators.

This kind of partnership would not allow undue power to be placed in the hands of correctional officers or make the role of educators more punitive than educational. This partnership would also ensure that all participating entities are on the same page about the state of educational programs now and in the future: if that means that departments of correction make independent partnerships with colleges to run programs, and those programs respond to real gaps in need, then we should support that process by holding everyone accountable.

The introduction of this bill marks a defining moment in criminal justice reform. The practical role of education in helping those incarcerated escape the cycles of marginalization, crime and poverty is as large as its transformative ability to foster critical thought, self-reflection and a stronger sense of self for those in the classroom. When we account for the irrefutable correlation between lack of education and rates of imprisonment, we must take every opportunity we can to provide educational programming for those who need it most. That means a wide range of programs, broader financial aid eligibility and a persistent, long-term commitment to improving educational access for all.

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