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.