Prisoners and the Formerly Incarcerated, to Educate or Not?

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PBS Newshour recently profiled the well-known Bard Prison Initiative in five New York state penitentiaries.  157 Prisoners have earned B.A. degrees over the past six years, with some going beyond that.  Does it please more people than infuriates?  It has been four years since 60 Minutes ran a feature story, yet has it been replicated?  With colleges increasingly appearing as money making machines, do they see the prisons as a needed space for education?

Throughout America in particular schools and neighborhoods, there are thousands of young men struggling to succeed.  Young men of Color in communities where rising police presence accompanies falling graduation rates.  Young men lured by the trappings of a material world that their families cannot afford.  Young men at times left to fend for themselves before they are old enough to vote or sign a simple lease.  The creative, intellectual, or most determined of these young men often make their “move” (often a rash and irresponsible move) as has been done for centuries; yet since the mid 1970’s such young men have been declared public enemy number one.  Why?  Because they are merchants of substances that are craved by all manner of people, from politicians to doctors to housewives.  Or so that is what is said.

Current law enforcement policies place a priority on drug sellers in communities of color.  They are a target that affords many tactics and given rise to a million children in prison.  Of course, once in the criminal justice system they are no longer called “children.”  Instead they are called “juveniles,” to further dehumanize them, as it is a word hardly ever used in a positive manner.  Billions of dollars spent in the name of “Public Safety,” with one consequence (intended or not) being the decimation of the communities’ resources.  These young men, and increasingly joined by young women, are returned to the community with no formal education and hardly anyone willing to offer a helping hand over those obstacles.

It is inaccurate to look at statistics about the “percentages” of Black men in college who go to grad school, who graduate, or “percentages” of high school grads who go to college.  If 50% of students do not graduate high school due to interactions with the police, or due to hopelessness and frustration, then the percentages downstream are extremely skewed.  I am beginning to wonder if there are more Black men receiving GED certificates in prison than college diplomas in the free world.  And it makes me wonder upon whose shoulders these difficult dilemmas should fall?

Corporations are well known for their inability to have a moral compass, or even a commitment to sustainability, as their priority of profit for shareholders is written into every corporate charter.  As many educational institutions are in fact corporations, their moral intentions should always be under scrutiny.  Today there are two Black women in college for every Black man, and more Black men in prison than college.  A corporation should not be expected to care.  Despite the Supreme Court declaring corporations as “people” for the purposes of influencing elections, nobody expects a faceless mass of shareholders and administrators to hold touchy-feely sessions on caring about the decimation of America by all the convictions and imprisonments and disrupted educations.  Kudos if they do, but expect it we should not.

Some would argue that the convictions and imprisonments and disrupted educations are necessary, as collateral damage in the pursuit of public safety.  As we build more prisons and deputize more police, the number of convictions increases while public perception of safety goes down, so it is actually irrational to believe more police and prisons will translate into more safety, given statistical realities.  Regardless of police and prison tactics, a goal of Public Safety calls for an investment in education.  An uneducated and unemployed community might survive if given the opportunity to farm and build homes, but this is not possible in 21st Century America.

An investment of time and resources from all educators and political leaders, if not the corporations.  Those are who we should expect to care.

The 157 graduates of Bard Prison Initiative, and Andres, are people prepared to build and support our society.  Some have done things in the past that were terrible, some who acted understandably given the circumstances, but all of whom are years beyond and drastically changed.  Will the storied liberal institutions like Berkely follow in Bard’s path?  The historically Black colleges like Howard and Morehouse?  Or even Brown University, whose Slavery & Justice Committee searches for a way to atone for their corporation being built off the profits of slave trading?

It is not enough to teach a Life Skills class.  There needs to be accredited education so that real resumes can be built, and formerly incarcerated people can enter the world with earning potential in their primary working years.

In 1994 the federal government decided that they should not take part in the education of prisoners, and cut the Pell Grant funding.  In the wake of this cut, people around San Quentin did something about it.  Spearheaded by a professor and the prison educators, they found a way to build the Prison University Project.  Over 100 people have received A.A. degrees from Patten University, while many more began their formal education inside and continued after release.  Ultimately, just a small group of committed people, as always, found a way.

About Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, LA. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and author of NewJack's Guide to the Big House. Much of his writing can be found on
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1 Response to Prisoners and the Formerly Incarcerated, to Educate or Not?

  1. Pingback: Unprison 2011-2013 Index | unprison

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