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Jun 20

Should Prisoners Be Allowed to Go to College Behind Bars?

An NPR story today tells us about San Quentin State Prison and the Prison University Project.  The question of whether while serving time prisoners should be allowed to have access to higher education while others may not, is indeed one to explore.

From the NPR story:

The Prison University Project is the only on-site, degree-granting college program in the state’s prison system. There are well over 100 teacher volunteers from schools such as UC-Berkeley, Stanford and San Francisco State. They go through three security checks to get into the prison. And then they hold classes in a nondescript trailer overlooking the prison’s baseball field

Phillip Senegal and valedictorian Felix Lucero earned associate of arts degrees in 2009 at a ceremony in San Quentin state prison, where they are inmates. The college program is an extension of Patten University in Oakland, Calif.

The program started in 1996 with two volunteer instructors. The program grew. But in 2000, its part-time coordinator quit. One of the volunteers, UC-Berkeley graduate student Jody Lewen, thought if nobody took the program over, it would fold. So she agreed to do it, thinking it would only be temporary. That turned into a full-time commitment.

Lewen decided she had to create an independent non-profit to raise funds to keep the program strong and stable. The project operates with no state or federal funds.

Today, 320 inmates are enrolled in the college program that could earn them an associate’s degree granted through a partnership between the Prison University Project and Patten University, based in Oakland, Calif. Two of this year’s five graduates have been paroled.

The question of whether this helps inmates is at the heart of the matter. Are prisoners given a better chance to not end up back in prison if they get educated while they are there? There’s not enough evidence yet, says our story. But anecdotally, one can certainly see the positives.

We don’t know enough about rehabilitation for prisoners but we do know that locking them up and not giving them enough to keep themselves occupied is not a recipe for success on the outside.

Pet therapy is another way to give prisoners some responsibility and keep their anger at bay. Check this vid out from a prison in France.

Similar reports about maintaining calm have surfaced with the education offerings as well.

Again from NPR:

Scott Kernan, who manages day-to-day operations at California’s 33 adult prisons, says the college classes and other programs are important not only for the inmates. “You give them something meaningful to do, something they are engaged in, something that is exercising their mind, then it becomes a safer place for staff,” Kernan says.

If inmates are idle, he says, there’s a much higher chance of violence.

San Quentin certainly experiences the violence. In May, there was a riot in a wing of the prison dedicated to the short-term inmates awaiting transfers to other state facilities. They don’t have access to the college or other programs. But the general population is encouraged to participate. Among that group, which numbers around 1,800, there are far fewer incidents.

Bobby Evans Jr., who is not eligible for parole until 2020, earned his degree at San Quentin five years ago and now tutors other inmates.

“I’ve seen guys transfer in from other high-level prisons and they come in with that mask,” says Evans, who says he came in with that hardened attitude, too. He says it takes time for new arrivals, even those not in the college program, to get used to the calmer atmosphere at San Quentin.

“In a couple of weeks they start opening up, because it’s different,” he says. “The racial tension is less. We start valuing things, and we don’t want to destroy them. And so it’s a life-changing thing.”

It seems to me that the question is two fold: First, there’s a question about money. Will San Quentin be the only school of it’s kind or will states or even Universities invest in this process? Secondly, is taking someone’s freedom to come and go as they please enough of a punishment for heinous and violent crimes?

I would say it is. And that educating them just might be the link that they all need to not return.

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3 comments

  1. Julianne Wallace

    Mike-

    Over at Dating God, Dan just hosted a podcast that dealt with some of these issues. The Franciscan Friar he interviews talks about teaching college classes to prisoners. He mentions that some of the prisoners he taught in prison ended up applying to Siena College after they were released from prison. I found it very interesting to listen to this particular point of view. Here is the link:
    http://datinggod.org/2011/06/07/dating-god-podcast-04-inside-prison-ministry/

    Thanks for this post!
    Julianne

  2. Jen

    Do you read Br. Dan’s blog, Dating God? One of his podcasts dealt with prison ministry, and the priest interviewed said that Sienna College’s program with a local prison was definitely helping people. One benefit that he saw was that the people taking the courses found abilities they didn’t know they had, and that a lot of them had really horrible self-esteems.

  3. Paul Daly

    In general I think giving prisoners the opportunity to better themselves educationally is a good thing. Probably gives those prisoners who are paroled, leave on probation or are pardoned a better chance at getting and keeping stable employment on the outside.
    But only non-violent prisoners and those with good behavior histories should be allowed to participate. This needs to be a reward and something that can be denied if behavior rules are not followed.
    Also, I would focus on those prisoners who are likely to be freed. It seems wasteful to allow someone who will never get out of prison to take up resources that could be better used on someone who will get out.
    And it has to be a volunteer effort. Taxpayers will have problems paying tax dollars for criminals to get college degrees while paying ever-rising tuition costs for themselves and their children.

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