What the Pell?  Let’s Educate the Incarcerated

Try as we might, we cannot ignore the correlation between education and success. Define success however you like:  the ability to obtain/retain employment; the ability to communicate effectively about something greater than self-interest; the ability to complete something; the willingness to learn something outside of the sphere of information provided by those inside your original five-mile radius life.   (Note:  in a rare moment, I’m speaking of “success” as defined by the world, not necessarily God.) Whatever win we can extrapolate from the rigor of education and its causal relationship with success, I will overlay my assertion:  educating men and women while they are incarcerated matters to ALL of us.

With the recent discussion about making Pell Grants available to the incarcerated again (federal grants which were disallowed for those in prison in 1994) the banter has reignited about whether “those people” deserve “free money.”  I weigh in quickly and continuously every time I have a listener on the topic: Yes, to the nine-hundredth degree.  Want to change something about something in prison–and, ergo, society?  Educate people.

Nothing ruins a garden party quicker than the suggestion that we should level the playing field between incarcerated students and those wandering American campuses without a rap sheet.  The arguments that rise to the fray about why we should not provide education to those incarcerated:

1.  They had a chance to go to school on the outside and they blew it. — They sure did.  There’s a good chance that the guy in my prison class is the guy who bullied you in your math class in sixth grade.  Or the girl who stole your clothes from your gym locker in ninth grade.  Or the kid that showed up to class so infrequently that everyone thought he was a narc. No one is surprised that s/he is now walking the hallways with a state-issued number.  But all that bullying and stealing and skipping were red flags.  Lighthouse beacons.  Sirens and signals that those folks were operating with a life stacked with Old Maid cards. People don’t end up in the prison system because their life is working. They end up in prison because they make poor choices inside a poor lattice of options and then compound those poor choices until they hit a brick wall.  Personally, I’ve never had to wonder how I was going to get to work or class or whether I would be shot walking home from second shift.  Nor, likely, have the people making the legislative decisions about prison education spending.

2. Nothing will change those people —  This argument is made most often by dissenters who have spent little or no time with those people. Or it is made by folks who have seen those people on the worst few days of their life (such as arrest and trial).  If the discussion allows, I will often ask what experience one has in walking with incarcerated men and women; what they have learned while attempting to make a difference in the lives of the incarcerated; and how–if not through education–we should better navigate the resources currently available for “rehabilitation.”  Nearly 100% of the time, this argument is made by people who have exactly zero experience working with the thousands of incarcerated people who have expressed and demonstrated an interest in changing the trajectory of their lives. Or, the “nothing will change them” naysayers are prison staff who have worked years in the units with the men and women who have yet to determine a need for change.  Let’s face it:  the Corrections Officer sitting for years at the segregation unit post isn’t going to see bright rays of sunshine through the of a muck-and-grime stream of bad attitudes.  It would be like asking someone to imagine Hawaii in the Antartic:  you can muster the image, but at some point you’d just give in to the constant shivering.

3. My son/daughter has to pay for education.  Why should someone in prison get a free education? — This is my favorite.  My answer is always tempered to my audience, but let’s stack a few together:

  • For my fiscally-minded friends:  You’re paying for the incarcerated people anyway.  Their food, shelter, clothing….all $25,000 annually per person (in Ohio) is being provided courtesy of you and your hard-working constituency.  The budget for prisons in many states is in the billions (that’s a B, folks) and since the penal system hasn’t gotten permission to press its own currency, that ching is coming straight from my pocket and yours.  So, if I’m paying for people who didn’t follow all the rules–and over 80% of said people are returning to the free world at some point in the near future–I’d prefer they return with a larger database of cognitive resources than they day they arrived in the pokey.  Sometimes, the time-out of prison is exactly what someone needs to change lanes.
  • For my “I-pulled-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps” friends:  Good for you.  If you paved your way through a train wreck of a life, took out student loans that took you a decade to repay and made your way in this world seemingly without the shred of assistance from another human, bravo.  I really do applaud your effort and interest in being a better version of your train-wreck-life options.  But, here’s the thing:  you had help, whether you want to acknowledge it or not.  That job you got to pay your way through school?  Someone believed in you enough to give it to you.  That student loan you took out to pay for classes?  The government subsidized that for you.  The ability to get to class, stay in class and understand what happened in class?  You either came equipped with those skills or learned them from someone. I’m not knocking a self-made man; I’m reminding us that the self-made man needed the world to cooperate.  Not everyone enjoys that cooperation from the world.
  • For my Christian friends:  Really?  You’re wearing God’s banner and still mad about this?  See the parable of the worker and get back to me.  Or, any part of the Scriptures for that matter. Sheesh.

Let’s keep it one hundred: many of us don’t support education for the incarcerated because we believe it coddles them, panders to the bad guy and is a waste of time.  I hear that.  For a sliver of a percentage of the men and women locked up, that is absolutely true.  But for the majority of young men and women who did the first portion of their life poorly, the question remains:  how do we hope the second half looks?  Does “poorly” serve anyone?

Full disclosure: I value education above most things. I have my own personal “bootstrap” story about  paying for my own future (the “paying” part being both past- and future-tense) amid limited obvious options or encouragement.  Three degrees later, after paying for shelter and food, I plunk down most of my remaining income for the private education of my five children.The Good Lord, generous supporters and my willingness to trade a social life for a second job will make it possible for my kids to enter the adult world as educated citizens.  My goal in the scrimping: that they pay it forward, understand the planet and be the change.

I have the same goals for the men and women I sit with in prison classrooms.

Strangely, we don’t argue whether education is a game changer for kids in the suburbs, the urban neighborhoods or anywhere else.  Rare is the person, regardless of political affiliation or socioeconomic stature, who waves off education as an expendable variable.  We only stop supporting education when people get locked up.  WHEN THEY NEED IT THE MOST. If we want to create a hybrid approach and require the incarcerated to work for their funding, I’m all in.  So are the incarcerated men and women.  In a decade, I have yet to meet someone in prison who believes the government owes them a free college education.

I don’t know if the kid who bullied me in sixth grade ever went to prison but if he did, I hope there was an educator there waiting with a sharpened pencil and a willing spirit to redirect his Game of Life.  Maybe a pastoral counselor to determine how he got mean in the first place.  Having been both to many, I am hard-pressed to understand any thinking that suggests we should take more from the incarcerated than the freedom they traded when they rolled the Poor Choices Dice.  Rather, let’s double our efforts to fill in the chasms that, out of survivial and ignorance, swell with the probability that they will continue–without a 90-degree intervention–on their current life path.  The life path, by the way, that costs you and me far more money than a Pell Grant.

“It is financially wise (to supplement college education for the incarcerated)” said John Dowdell, coeditor of The Journal of Correctional Education. “It’s time to get over the emotional bias and do what the data says.”

The girl who stole my clothes in ninth grade could use a new lane.