Incarceration, Education, Emancipation

Learning opportunities in prison offer a form of freedom that’s important not only for the individual criminal, but also for society as a whole.

Jerome Boone, a prisoner at San Quentin State Prison, shakes hands with members of the audience after graduating from a computer-coding program in April 2015. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters)

“Next, then, make an image of our nature in its education and want of education.” Thus begins Plato’s well-known “Allegory of the Cave” in The Republic, a dialogue about justice and the ideal society. For Plato, the task of education is to free people from their shackles and show them the way out of imprisonment. His argument hinges on this point: To be educated is to be emancipated—not only individually, intellectually, and philosophically, but also socially, politically, and ethically. Education, he contends, is what makes justice possible.

The allegory becomes strangely reversed when considering the “cave” of the modern prison. Given the deep and systemic failures in the country’s educational practices, the classroom doesn’t always facilitate emancipation. For some, the classroom is the very mechanism that leads to imprisonment, isolation, and alienation.

Over the past 40 years, the United States has seen a “carceral explosion.” The United States has just over 4 percent of the world’s population but holds 22 percent of the world’s prisoners; it’s home to 2 million prisoners total, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. These inmates are overwhelmingly young men of color, and the majority of them never finished school. A 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics report titled “Education and Correctional Populations” reported that 68 percent of the state prison population then had not received a high-school diploma. Only about 13 percent of inmates, in both state and federal prisons, had completed some kind of postsecondary education.

What’s notable about these inmates isn’t just that they’ve fallen out of the education system. In many cases, “zero-tolerance” policies in schools led them down a path that culminated in prison. In what is sometimes called the “school-to-prison” pipeline, administrators are ordered to suspend students for infractions as minor as dress-code violations and cellphone use. These approaches are a variation on the “broken-windows” policing that took off around the 1980s, especially under the former President Ronald Reagan and, in New York City, the former Mayor Rudolf Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton. Such punishments—detention, expulsion, and increasingly, arrest—can set up nearly insurmountable barriers that eventually serve to exclude young people from meaningful participation in society (felony disenfranchisement, minimal job training) and stifle their development, making them “hard” and more likely to commit worse crimes upon release.

What this means is that a disproportionate number of poor people spend their 20s and 30s not in higher-education institutions, but in prison; one in 10 black males in their 30s is in prison on any given day, according to The Sentencing Project. This suggests that, for these people caught in the incarceration net, the prison—and not the university—is the rite of passage into adulthood.

Yet prison doesn’t necessarily have to end these young people’s educations. In some cases, it can even mark the beginning, as I have witnessed during my eight years of teaching college-level philosophy courses in prisons in Texas, New York, and Connecticut. One particular encounter has stayed with me through the years. After a lecture and discussion on Descartes’ Meditations, one of the students, a man named Roy D., lingered. He was a truck driver before he ended up in the Texas prison at which I taught, where public records show he will remain for the rest of his life. After the session, he adjusted his cheap plastic glasses, held together by a piece of tape, and said, “I’ve never felt so free as when I’m in this class.”

Malcolm X, it seems, had a similar experience with education. In his autobiography, he wrote of his own years behind bars. After being frustrated that he could not “express what [he] wanted to convey in letters that [he] wrote,” Malcolm X picked up a dictionary and began to copy every single word. “Months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.”

Investment in rehabilitative programs like drug counseling or educational programming at prisons has declined in favor of techniques of deterrence such as surveillance, isolation, and punitive control. A 2011 report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy reported that only 6 percent of the prison population was enrolled in an education program during the 2009–10 academic year.

Yet a 2013 RAND Corporation report “found strong evidence that correctional education plays a role in reducing recidivism.” In a press release for the report, the project’s lead researcher, Lois Davis, said it is “clear that providing inmates education programs and vocational training helps keep them from returning to prison and improves their future job prospects.” Formerly incarcerated persons who participate in education programs have a 43 percent lower rate of recidivism. The study also found that employment was 13 percent higher among those who had participated in these programs.

The study concluded that every $1 spent on prison education translated into $4 or so in savings during the first three years post-release. That finding echoed a 2004 study by the UCLA School of Public Policy and Research. While the UCLA study found that “a $1 million investment in incarceration will prevent about 350 crimes (if not only from the fact of removing people from society),” it also concluded that “that same investment in education will prevent more than 600 crimes”; in other words, prison education produced twice the “return” that mere imprisonment did. To put this in perspective, consider California, which has built 22 prisons since the 1980s and only one University of California campus. In 2011, one year at Princeton University cost $37,000 compared to one year at a New Jersey state prison, which cost the state $44,000 per incarcerated person.

Numbers aside, the experiences of students and educators should also factor into any assessment of prison education. Chrisfino Kenyatta Leal, the 2011 valedictorian of the Prison University Project in California, has said, “It occurred to me that at San Quentin the power of education had actually changed the culture within the prison … The more opportunities we in prison have to learn to value education and see possibilities for ourselves, the greater the chance we will break the cycle of incarceration not just for ourselves but for future generations to come.” A 2011 report by the Correction Association of New York states that, “Prison administrators, program practitioners, and incarcerated persons alike also recount the positive effects of college programs in prisons: providing an incentive for good behavior; producing mature, well-spoken leadership who have a calming influence on other inmates and on correction officers; and, reducing the tension and violent interactions between inmates and staff and among inmates.”

Unfortunately, there is no consistency in the types of educational programming in prisons and jails. They depend on available state funding (if any) and the types of private organizations that have the resources and willingness to participate, as well as specific institutional obstacles that must be overcome before any prison can implement a program from the outside. Often, they depend on the person overseeing the particular prison. I have been lucky to be involved in programs that have support from higher-level administrators—in all of those instances, the warden was convinced of the benefit of having a post-secondary education program inside.

But even when prisons offer education, it’s not always easy for inmates to access it. Participation is voluntary and can be competitive; some programs I’ve worked with involve an application process. In some cases, education can be used as a way of further punishing or controlling the incarcerated because it’s an opportunity that officials can threaten to take away: I have had students who’ve been pressured to follow an order under a threat that went something like, “Well, if you don’t do this, you’re not going to class this week.” So long as education is conceived as an unearned “reward,” then a lack of education is conceived as a justifiable punishment.

There are also financial factors that can undermine a prisoner’s chance at an education. For example, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 disallowed incarcerated people to receive federal Pell Grants, despite the relatively low cost of the program to the federal government. That left it to the states and private organizations to fund these programs. New York, for example, continued to fund its postsecondary correctional education through the Tuition Assistance Program but discontinued it once the former Governor George Pataki took office in 1995. After the ban, nearly all of the 350 postsecondary programs in prison closed nationwide.

The data suggests that increasing, rather than decreasing, these opportunities would save Americans money and make them safer—and data is important, since it shows administrators, policymakers, and critics that a program works. But it is something less tangible, difficult to quantify, that has caused Roy’s statement to stay with me over the years. How is it that anyone can experience “freedom” inside a place that is designed to make the person unfree? One answer is that “freedom” is a private, internal experience of power and understanding. In the case of these inmates, that also means being able to dialogue with the past, express themselves to others, and to imagine and articulate a future. It means actively participating in and contributing to a conversation, a problem, and a solution. It is the experience of being recognized as a whole person, the “correction” of being apart and the cultivation of being a part.

Indeed, when Malcolm X and Roy D. stated that education made them feel free, they described it as an experience they’d never previously had in their lives. To be poor, uneducated, and excluded—as many of America’s prisoners have always been—is an experience of genuine non-freedom.

This is the lesson that Plato teaches: Education as emancipation is important not only for the individual criminal (as for anyone else), but for society as a whole. A crime marks a fissure between individual and society. Punishment tries to close this fissure and, in a best-case scenario, minimize future occurrences. So does education, and it does this by connecting the individual to society. Once that person feels at home in the world, he or she draws it closer—bridging the divide that results from alienation and exclusion, and possibly beginning the process of healing the wound of crime.