Inmates and College Education

By: Marina Salsbury

One of the main purposes of the criminal justice system is to keep criminals off the street so that the public will remain safe. What people tend to forget is that another major goal of the criminal justice system is to rehabilitate criminals so that when they’re released the public will still remain safe. Rehabilitation isn’t an easy process and isn’t always suitable or possible for every inmate, but with the right techniques, it can be accomplished for a great many. Typical rehabilitation practices include therapy, spiritual guidance, community service, and education.

Research shows education is one of the most effective ways to rehabilitate criminals. It gives inmates a new purpose in life and may change the attitudes that landed them in prison in the first place. It also makes it a lot easier for inmates to find jobs upon release, a major benefit considering former inmates have a terrible time finding work after prison due to employers’ unwillingness to hire workers with criminal records.

Often the chances of finding a job can be greatly increased by proving one was disciplined enough to pursue education while still behind bars. The skills and knowledge acquired also give inmates the ability to work in a larger variety of positions. Released inmates who are able to obtain employment are far less likely to return to prison than those who remain unemployed. According to University of Missouri policy analyst Jake Cronin, inmates who earned GEDs in prison were 33 percent less likely to return to prison. These numbers may be even higher for inmates who earn college degrees through online courses or prison-based programs.

One surprising benefit of college courses in prison is that they actually save taxpayers money. This research flies in the face of the objection that providing education to prisoners wastes money. A 2009 report from the Correctional Association of New York revealed that the 1,200 inmates then taking part in 69 prison programs across the United States were far less likely to return to prison. Since it costs as much as $40,000 annually to house an inmate in prison, any measure that will prevent former inmates from returning to prison is a worthwhile endeavor.

Unfortunately, college education is not available in all US prisons. Some people believe criminals forfeit their right to education when they break laws. Some facilities simply don’t have the necessary resources for providing college-level education to inmates. GED prison programs are far more common than college programs, as they tend to be less expensive to run. Some prisons allow inmates to pursue college degrees online, but usually under close supervision.

On the other hand, some schools themselves offer programs specifically designed for getting inmates educated. Boston University has a prison education program, from which over 200 degrees have been granted to inmates from MCI-Norfolk, MCI-Framingham, and the Bay State Correctional Center. Other notable schools with prison education programs include Harvard, Bard College, Georgetown University, and Wesleyan University.

The overwhelming body of research shows providing college education for inmates is one of the most effective means of lowering recidivism rates. Nevertheless, at present most inmates don’t have access to college-level programs. As more research comes out highlighting the benefits of college education in prison, chances are politicians will find providing these opportunities more worthwhile.

Marina Salsbury planned on becoming a teacher since high school, but found her way instead intoonline writing after college. She writes around the Web about everything from education to exercise. She can be reached by e-mail here.


Piece of Mind: Much to Learn From Young Mom’s Ordeal

This is a repost of an article that appeared in the Jakarta Globe.  It was written by Reza Daffi and published on October 10, 2011.

I read a sad story on the Internet a few months ago: A 16-year-old student in East Java gave birth at school. It was not the unusual labor and birthplace that concerned me (well it was, a little), but rather the fact that the new mother was expelled from school.

The headmaster of SMK II Madiun, a vocational high school where 99 percent of the students are female, said the girl had to be expelled for breaking rules signed during registration forbidding students from marrying and getting pregnant.

The girl, identified as R by newspapers, was known to be a good student. She was described as a smart, active young woman who participated in extracurricular activities and sports. 

Like other female students, she wore a hijab and loose clothing in class — nothing that could be called “naughty.” R seemed to be another normal student, until she delivered a premature baby at the school clinic, which led to her expulsion. Given the regulations the girl agreed to, the punishment might have seemed appropriate. But was it?

When asked if every rule offender deserves to be punished, my answer is usually yes. But should the punishment be alienating and traumatic? I believe that the idea of sanctioning is to correct people’s behavior — so we should unfailingly seek a better, more humane and, if possible, compassionate way to do that. After all, everyone makes mistakes and deserves a second chance.

Almost two decades ago, Robert Waxler, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, came up with the idea that prisoners could be rehabilitated through reading. His program, Changing Lives Through Literature, has enjoyed widespread success in the United States since 1991. The reading course has become an alternative to jail time in many states.

In Texas, where the imprisonment and death penalty rates are the highest in the world, 597 prisoners completed the course from 1997 to 2008. Of those, only 36 prisoners, or 6 percent, went back to jail after failing their probation, but they committed less serious crimes. Most of these prisoners, however, now see the world from a different perspective, and some even want to get a college education.

The reading course is taught with the belief that human conduct starts with the mind. Crime and criminal behavior stems from many causes, including ignorance and narrow-mindedness. By having the convicts read books, CLTL tries to broaden prisoners’ views of life, enhance their minds and create wiser, critical-thinking people.

Education essentially aims to enlighten students, and CLTL has shown that broadening pupils’ minds is achievable. Schools, of course, should facilitate “enlightenment.” 

In class we learn, read, make friends, and raise hopes for a better future. If those are not the things that change lives, nothing is. At this point, we may question the decision of the school to expel its student for immoral but harmless conduct.

Expelling the girl from school will not solve any problems. It seems more like an effort to save face by those who want to stay untainted: the school, the headmaster, teachers, and other students.

The punishment has nothing to do with rehabilitation. I’m sure that giving birth unexpectedly at 16 was physically and psychologically painful. The girl may also be shunned and held in contempt by her neighbors.

Going against society’s values is wrong, as is failing to give a person a chance to fix a mistake. Programs such as CLTL have been giving prisoners a chance. The 16-year-old girl is certainly not a “criminal,” and should have the opportunity to move on from her mistake. To do that, she needs to have hope, which is why she should stay in school.

I dream of the girl’s friends and teachers visiting her home to see if she is OK, of her partner staying beside her, of the community supporting and helping to raise the new child and of the girl being allowed to go to school again. I’m not alone.

Sadly, we live in a country where some people think that fornicating is a worse offense than assaulting an innocent person, and where people like to hide behind hypocrisy. While becoming a parent before marriage might be one of the worst things that can befall a girl, ironically (and unjustly), the same is not the case for boys.

Suggested Reading List for Addicts

By: Anne O’Toole-Bolthrunis, editor

My life has been touched by addicts.

Although I don’t know anyone who has gone to jail or been through an alternative sentencing program like Changing Lives Through Literature, I know many people who have found solace for their addictions in different forms of literature. AA and NA have their own “literature”, mostly with vaguely or blatant religious overtones. There are daily meditations and articles about the various steps used in these programs. To people who follow 12 Step Programs, these writings can have a profound impact on the recovering addict.

However, there are other novels, articles, and various writings that may also have such an impact. Different people find solace in different places – church, support groups, therapists, friends, and “secular” literature. Some of the writers and works that I have found to have a particular impact include the following:

Self Reliance and Other Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson: The pivotal transcendentalist’s major work encourages the reader to trust him or herself and to work hard to achieve difficult goals. The writing is accessible to all; it’s easy to follow and the lyrical prose is easy to lose yourself in. The goals outlined in these essays are directly related to the addict’s journey – although many 12 Step programs teach the addict to rely on the group and to trust in God, finding inner strength to begin and continue the healing process on their own is also important to recovery. The entire collection is fairly short and each essay can easily be read in one sitting, which makes it an ideal read for someone in early recovery who may not have the attention span to become engaged in a larger work.

Madness: A BiPolar Life by Marya Hornbacher: Although I wouldn’t recommend this book to someone in early recovery (it can get pretty harrowing at times, and detailed descriptions of drinking may be a “trigger” to someone who is not well-set in his or her recovery), it is a great book for someone with a ‘dual diagnosis’ (a diagnosis of addiction coupled with a diagnosis of an organic mental health disorder). Hornbacher is a gifted writer with an amazing attention to detail, and while her account may be difficult to read and may hit very close to home, I have found that many addicts find comfort in other addicts. Reading about someone else’s experience can help the addict to see that not only are they not alone, but other people have had similar experiences and survived and even improved because of them. Hornbacher is also the author of two self-help books for people in recovery who are non-religious – Waiting: a Non-Believer’s Higher Power and Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the Twelve Steps, which are particularly helpful to those participating in 12 Step programs who do not consider themselves religious and are turned off by the religious overtones these groups are famous for.

A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown: Another addiction memoir best suited for those later in recovery, A Piece of Cake tells the story of Cupcake Brown, who goes from a happy childhood to a world of abusive foster homes, drugs, gangs, and prostitution. What makes Brown unique is her journey from “trash-can addict” to law student. The first three-quarters of the memoir concentrate on Brown’s life as an addict, but the last quarter is solely about her journey to become a better person. Unlike Hornbacher, Brown does not suffer from a dual diagnosis, so her story may be more universally appealing to addicts, although it should not be read in early recovery due to some ‘triggering’ material.

Novels by Michael Palmer: Palmer is a Massachusetts native and a writer of medical thrillers. What makes him unique among the masses who make their living from writing in this genre is Palmer is a recovering addict. Although issues of recovery do not play heavily into his books, I have found that people in recovery are interested in reading his books because they are entertaining, easy to digest, and show that addicts can overcome their difficulties and become highly successful and functioning members of society. Those in 12 Step programs may also get a kick out of seeing “Dr. Bob”, the founder of AA, in the acknowledgements in all of his books.

Although these books are regularly read by addicts and seem to be encouraging for them, exposing addicts to any literature early in their recovery can be beneficial. Find out what the addict in your life is interested in and find books about the subject and authors who write about it. Some popular, entertaining, mindless novels can be just as beneficial as high-minded addiction specific works. Merely transferring energy an addict would normally spend on their addiction to a new hobby or interest can be enormously positive in any stage of recovery. Self-help, philosophy, and addiction memoir don’t have to make up the bulk of what changes an addict’s life – it might be Stephen King (who has also suffered with addiction), Jodi Picoult, or Mother Theresa. When the time is right, introduce a friend or loved one who is suffering with addiction to your favorite book. Start your own book club. Distraction can be a wonderful thing, and a distraction that has the added benefit of educating can be even more life-changing.

Anne O’Toole-Bolthrunis is the current editor of the CLTL Blog and a graduate student in the Professional Writing Program at UMass Dartmouth. She enjoys reading, writing memoirs, being a connoisseur of music, and, of course, Facebook. She can be reached for comment here.