Learning Behind Bars

Prison education programmes have met with varying degrees of success in the US, depending on the prison and the nature of the programme. Like education in general, they’re also under fire, and some people are turning their ire to prison education first on the grounds that it’s a waste of resources; why should the general public, after all, pay for prisoners to learn things? Surely there are better uses of critical social resources than allowing prisoners to learn things, and who knows what they might do with the knowledge they pick up in prison classes, workshops, correspondence programmes, and other settings.

Disdain for prison education speaks both to a lack of understanding of the prison system, and a lack of desire to have any sort of compassion or humanity when it comes to discussing prison inmates and what they should be able to access. Education represents an opportunity, one that can be especially important for prisoners, who may need educational resources if they want to be successful on the outside. The same holds true for people in prison for life; who are we to deny people the right to an education?

While access to education is not formally enshrined as a right under the Constitution, I’d argue it is a basic human right, and one that should be enforced. All people should have access to the education they want and the tools to complete their education, and this includes prisoners, who are not exempt from human rights requirements. In addition to being a basic human rights issue, though, it’s also a purely practical one; educated prisoners are less likely to experience recidivism, for a number of reasons, which makes investment in prison education a sound move for facilities that want to discharge prisoners and never see them again.

In youth facilities, many inmates have been in and out of various juvenile institutions, and often they are steadily working their way up the criminal ladder, caught in a system they cannot escape. Each crime narrows their opportunities, and when they are released, they return to crime because it’s what they know, and what they are good at. When you’re bouncing around between prison facilities, there’s not a lot of time for getting an education, or finishing the education you started, which means that incarcerated youth may lack high school diplomas or equivalency certificates, and are unlikely to have community college or technical college certifications.

When they’re released and they start looking for work, they face a double bias. Employers are often reluctant to hire people with a criminal history, and that includes juveniles. Those who are willing to overlook this, often because they have a contract or agreement with a prison, or are run by ex-prisoners, may not be able to hire people without a basic education. This can be the result of competency concerns or genuine industry requirements. In either case, youth apply for jobs, don’t get them, grow more desperate over time, and eventually may be forced to return to criminal activity to support themselves, because all other avenues are closed to them.

Basic education can prevent some of these issues. More advanced education can provide prisoners with tools they can actually use on the outside. The sheltered workshop model used in prisons is not productive, as it only teaches people how to complete repetitive, labour-intensive tasks for minimal pay. Actual technical training, on the other hand, can be valuable; prisoners who leave with mechanical skills, for example, may be able to find work in auto shops and similar facilities, and thus have a chance of building new lives for themselves.

For everyone who leaves prison with a set of useful skills and a degree or certificate that can be used somewhere, that’s one less person likely to return to criminal acts. This is a pretty clear argument for providing prison education and making sure prisoners have a chance to choose between several different options, so they can pursue education and training suited to their experience, skill level, and interests. Prisons offering this kind of support have lower recidivism statistics, and in some cases prisoners actively compete for transfer to these facilities; would you rather be stuck on a road crew working in extremely hot temperatures all summer for virtually no pay, or be in a classroom, learning something?

Prison education is important, and it needs to be incorporated into overall education budgets. Prisons need funding to provide educational resources, including not just instruction but good libraries, workshop spaces, and other tools people may need to complete classes and develop practical skills. While many prisons are warehouses for humanity with few opportunities for their inmates, used solely as storage facilities, they don’t have to be; and some of the great costs of dealing with repeat offenders could be reduced by spending more when people initially enter the system.

Juveniles in particular can benefit greatly from access to education, especially since going to prison means they aren’t getting the education they would have gotten on the outside. If education is so important that the President incorporates discussions about drop out rates into major speeches, it’s equally important inside prison walls; a youth in prison is another dropout, unless that prison has the resources to provide an education. Many prisons lack them, or don’t have solid institutional support for education, which makes it easy for prisoners to tune out and not complete. Fighting funding for prison education isn’t just a bad move ethically: It also doesn’t make sense socially.