The Dignity of Education in Prison

Last week, I had the auspicious privilege of visiting San Quentin State Prison, the oldest prison in California and the largest Death Row prison in the country, with more than seven hundred condemned prisoners. While I have visited many prisons in different contexts over the course of my rabbinic career, I had never been afforded the opportunity to be invited to engage with a wonderful program called the Prison University Project, who invited me to spend a morning learning and interacting with prisoners at San Quentin. According to the Prison University Project website, the project is dedicated “To provide excellent higher education to people at San Quentin State Prison; to support increased access to higher education for incarcerated people; and to stimulate public awareness about higher education access and criminal justice.”

While at San Quentin, I had the opportunity to speak with various inmates. I asked them what social injustices and human challenges bother them most that they want to address. Some of their thoughtful answers included: suffering of children, socio-economic divides, transitioning from retributive justice to restorative justice, family planning support, religious conflicts, helping others unlock their inner potentials, poverty, treating Alzheimer's, teaching kids emotional intelligence. They were spirited and thoughtful about these causes; they opened my heart.

These students, in prison garb, were deeply intrigued, committed, and insightful. In this neuroscience course, every one of them grappled with the limits of free will, the implications of new findings on how the brain works, and what it all means about human development. I was so moved and impressed by their thoughtful answers. In the course of my brief time with these men, I wondered how they learned as much as they had without having prior advanced degrees and with such little time at the prison for their studies. I was told that they don’t receive adequate time or space to do their homework, so they sit upon their toilets in their cells to do their work. In contrast, the Prison University Project treated the inmates with respect and dignity. They truly create a space of hope in their classrooms, moments of light amidst overwhelming darkness.

I witnessed teachers passionate about education within the prison system. I found students eager for these moments of freedom where they could break away from the harsh routines of prison life to actualize their minds. While racial groups segment themselves within prison, in the classroom they all came together and interacted comfortably. I walked away that day with a new sense of how the American justice system has failed prisoners by ignoring their intellectual growth. While I would never excuse the reason that many of the inmates were in there (if they had committed serious violent or sexual crimes), leaving them to languish negates their latent ability to enhance their inner selves and develop their character.

In a larger sense, teaching at San Quentin fueled my interest in the state of educational circumstances for incarcerated populations. Currently, there are 102 federal prisons, 1,719 state prisons, and 3,283 local jails that hold approximately 2.3 million Americans on a daily basis. Data from 2004 indicate that more than a third (36 percent) of those incarcerated lacked a high school education, versus 2015 Census data showing 88 percent of Americans had a high school diploma or GED. Those incarcerated, who are lucky enough to have access to educational resources, often have to pay for their education courses, and, obviously, most cannot afford such services.

Yet, today, programs that enrich the lives of prisoners are flourishing. In-prison and post-release educational organizations comprise vocational, GED, college readiness, and academic support services, and credits can be transferred from prison to local colleges. The hope is that the increased education will reduce the rate of recidivism and spur other states to enact similar programs. Indeed, the Inside-Out Center of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, conducts a program where incarcerated adults and students at the college study together. Since its inception in 1997, the Center has offered training to more than six hundred instructors in forty-three states, along with courses for 20,000 students from prison and the campus. On a broader scale, the Pathways From Prison to Postsecondary Education Project seeks to expand educational opportunities (vocational, GED, and college course, for example) for those incarcerated and those recently released. Without support from local, state, or federal budgets, Pathways has turned to private and philanthropic funds to augment its $9.6 million budget, which is supported by the Ford Foundation, the Sunshine Lady Foundation, the Open Society Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Project includes programs in New Jersey (six prisons and seven colleges/universities), North Carolina (seven prisons, seven community colleges), and Michigan (two prisons, two colleges).

Efforts to provide education for prisoners in America go back to at least 1787. As the nation developed, the educational needs of prisoners grew, and various grants were offered to allow prisoners to pay for their in-prison education. In 1980, the U.S. Department of Education established a Correctional Education Office. In the ensuing period, however, as the prison population soared, the political tide turned against prison education. In 1994, Congress banned prisoners from obtaining Pell Grants on the spurious grounds that prisoners were taking grants away from other students (in truth, all qualified students get Pell grants), and that prisoners were using jail to get a free education. As a result, people incarcerated in federal or state prisons cannot get a Federal Pell Grant or federal student loan. They theoretically could get a Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) or qualify for Federal Work Study (FWS), but FSEOGs are prioritized to those who also qualify for Pell Grants, and FWS jobs can rarely be performed by people in prison.

Overall, the lack of political support has been catastrophic for prison education. Before 1995, there were approximately 350 prison college programs. By 2005, only twelve remained. Recently, many states have cut their budgets for prison education by 10 to 20 percent, and Congress has consistently failed to fund Specter grants, which subsidized state prison system post-secondary programs. While the Obama Administration attempted to restore some Pell Grants as part of a research project, this only began during the 2016-2017 academic year, and will have only a negligible effect, as only Congress can restore the bulk of these grants.

Such a mean-spirited, punitive spirit defies credible research. A 2013 meta-analysis of three decades of data by senior policy researcher Lois M. Davis and colleagues for the RAND Corporation confirmed 2000 and 2006 studies that showed correctional education significantly reduced the rate of recidivism. The relative risk reduction for re-incarceration for those who received education (including vocational and GED preparation) was 13 percent. For those taking college-level courses, the risk reduction was 16 percent. In terms of dollars, each dollar spent for prison education could save $4 to $5 in savings in re-incarceration cost; this does not include the benefit of a comprehensively lower crime rate.

While it can be difficult for many of us to recognize, prisoners should be granted access to the same educational opportunities that any other person has. The question is: can we open our hearts and minds to such a venture? Education is a basic human right, even for those who have committed crimes. Ensuring inmates have access to education is crucial not only for their inherent dignity but also to ensure that they can obtain jobs when they re-enter society. Supporting the intellectual capacity of inmates reduces recidivism rates, which, when successful, makes society safer. If we wish to see our neighborhoods secure and crime reduced in our communities, then it should be our obligation to see that educational resources are allowed into prisoners in abundance.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.

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