From Walking The Yard To Walking The Stage

When we talk about Prison Education, one might ask why we should support prison education? Why should we pay for a criminal’s eduation? It gives them the power to succeed, benefits society, and transforms lives.

The Power To Succeed

Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.

-Malcolm X

Most inmates know that they will be getting out one day. They look forward to their release, each hoping that the trip home will be a permanent one. But to succeed the inmate must be prepared to enter society with a new outlook and the skills for new opportunities. 

The odds it seems are stacked against the inmate. The unfortunate truth is that the majority of former inmates will eventually find themselves back behind bars. There are a number of factors that contribute to such a high recidivism rate. These issues are complex, with varied causes, but study after study has demonstrated that the primary reason that so many newly freed persons return is unemployment. 

In the real world, it takes money to survive. With nothing to start from, the formerly incarcerated must find a way to provide for themselves. The costs of putting food on the table, clothing one’s body, and transportation can be overwhelming. Like everyone else, people with criminal records must find a place to live and a decent job to support their families. Accomplishing these tasks is even more difficult for someone with criminal convictions because they face greater scrutiny and are more frequently rejected. They need a second chance but often find that their felony is holding them back.

Opportunity awaits, but employers are hesitant to hire someone without evidence that they are truly reformed. A college degree is the key to a second chance at life and gives them the best hope of never seeing prison walls again.  Nothing else has been shown to be as effective at helping prisoners find gainful employment and keeping them out for good. With the right skills and education, released prisoners can overcome their prison record. In fact, 75 percent of college-educated ex-convicts overcome the stigma and find steady employment. Another study shows that academic and vocational training reduces recidivism by more than 40 percent. 

Higher education is the secret to obtaining the best jobs and qualifying for higher salaries. Incarcerated students who complete a college education are positioning themselves for a good standard of living upon their release. Compared to people who have only a high school diploma, employees with a bachelor’s degree earn significantly more. This with graduate degrees, earn even more.

It’s no secret that many of those living behind the fence come from broken families, plagued with all the troubles that come from living in poverty without a stable environment. They may have experienced racial discrimination, physical, or sexual abuse. That’s the only life that some of them have ever known. Oddly enough, their first positive experience might arrive during incarceration while participating in some reformative activity, such as a church service or correctional education class. These settings, within an otherwise dreary environment, may provide the first positive perspectives in an individual’s growth.

Whether the prisoner is learning a vocational skill, earning their high-school equivalency, participating in a continuing education course, or pursuing a college-level credential, the concept of self-improvement impacts the individual. The results can not be measured solely by the number of certificates handed out, because many of the most profound changes happen internally. For those who were brought up in a dysfunctional household, this might be the first time that they feel any sense of self-worth and accomplishment.

As the student completes each lesson or finishes his class assignments, he begins to realize that hard work is rewarded. Getting good grades gives prisoners a purpose and something to focus on. They can reflect on what they have learned as they develop a sense of satisfaction in seeing their efforts pay off. It is through this process that the learner begins to discover something that the rest of society takes for granted, that hard work has its rewards. Not only does feedback from their instructors inform them of their progress but it also validates their efforts. While everything else in the prisoner’s world stops, their personal growth doesn’t have to.

In fact, education is one of the few things that a prisoner can do while incarcerated that will better them beyond life behind bars. Prison education programs tend to be a place of refuge, somewhere that inmates can gather to grow together. Unfortunately, many prisons severely lack a quality education program of their own, which is why correspondence programs are so important to the prisoner. Where there are limited options, correspondence courses fill the void. Through education, the prisoner, though still confined, is set free. The mind cannot be kept captive.

One of the greatest things that inmates discover through prison education programs is that society still believes that their lives can be salvaged, that they can be redeemed, and are more than society’s rejects. Education also teaches the inmate that they are an integral part of the community. After developing new ways of seeing the world, they start to see that they, too, can contribute in a positive way. The new skills, combined with a new sense of direction and purpose, are what give the educated inmate the power to succeed. 

Education Ensures Freedom

Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family. 

-Kofi Annan, Seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations 

The ability to reason is what sets the human apart. Education teaches us to think logically and analytically, but it also teaches us of the human spirit. It is through learning that we begin to discern the incredible balance that provides the conditions for life. History teaches us much of ourselves. Even the arts have something to say. We see how creative forces drive business, scientific discovery, and human innovation. 

Whether we pursue a liberal arts degree or study a trade, we are forced to examine our place in the world. Degree programs of all kinds help us to see the interconnectedness of everything and find our place in the interwoven fabric of society.

Given the realities of prison life, it is important to awaken the mind to new ideas. Under regular conditions, prison is a depressing environment that strips away every sense of control and connectedness. The ordinary tools of communication and self-expression are gone, leaving only a few basic means. When fifteen-minute phone calls don’t suffice, many inmates find that writing is an excellent way to remain sane. While writing from prison, many men have found relief from past wounds and forgiveness for past wrongs. Writing is a way of self-reflecting, and memorializing the moments that most impacted us. And finally, powerful writing remains one way to give a voice to those who are otherwise silenced.

The incarcerated man student often finds that it is through their own writing that they discover their own true self. For the man who never thought he could accomplish something worthwhile his submissions, uncover potential that can develop into real talents and skills. But, it’s not just his writing that opens his mind to new possibilities, but also the reading. As the student researches, he enriches his mind with knowledge.

Whether the subject is secular or religious in nature, education forces the man to look within himself. His identity changes from that of a prisoner to that of a professional. And seeing how the choices of every man affect every other, he begins to be truly reformed. He wants to right his wrongs and contribute to society. But even while still incarcerated, the prisoner’s worldview begins to change. He begins to have hope. And his mind is filled with something that can never be taken away.

I heard a prisoner say, you might be confined, but your spirit isn’t. I think it’s also safe to say, neither is your mind. As the student pours himself into his studies, he escapes the mind-numbing daily grind. Instead of simply existing, he persists. And it’s the persistent one who gets the reward at the end. 

So, yes education really does ensure freedom, both while incarcerated and upon release. And for all practical matters, it might be when he’s released that it really counts. Will he go back to doing the same old things, or did he lay a foundation for a new life? That is the question. Sadly, far too many inmates do the same thing, over and over again, when the could have used their down time to better themselves. With the right skills and the right mindset, he will remain free indeed.

The Results Are Worth It

No other investment yields as great a return as the investment in education. An educated workforce is the foundation of every community and the future of every economy. 

-Brad Henry, Former Governor of Oklahoma

Yes, education can be expensive. But, it might be the best investment anyone can make. Especially someone, who without change, will find themselves right back behind bars. Yes, the costs are real, but where there is a will, there is a way.

Let me put it to you this way, not being able to afford education, is just another excuse. The simple truth is that there are a number of options for inmates that might be affordable for their family, or even on the little allowance the prison gives for the working inmate. I try to highlight many of the affordable options in this book. 

Even if a college degree is out of reach, on an inmates budget, that doesn’t mean there aren’t creative ways to attain one. Many inmates have found ways to fund and finish their college degrees. I discuss many of these ways in my book, the Inmates Education Guidebook. And this persistence pays off.

Education is an opportunity to transcend the circumstances of the criminal. It is the single smartest thing a person can do for his or her life. Having a degree opens up many opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be there. The prison environment certainly doesn’t come without obstacles and frustrations. But will there is a will, there is a way.

The rewards are worth it. That is why I say the results are priceless. You can’t put a price on personal growth. Some inmates will let the days pass by without accomplishing anything worthwhile. Maybe they hit the weight pile and bulk up. But that’s not going to provide lasting benefits. An education will. For every individual that gets locked up, they have to make a choice. They can do nothing and allow their mind to rot while the TV plays the same old shows. They can let their soul slowly die, as they deal another hand of spades. Or they can make something of themselves.

The inmate who finishes his degree, sets himself up for success. He is less likely to return to jail. He is more likely to return to the community as a happy productive member of society. And he is more likely to use his past as a springboard for positive change.

Transformation Awaits

Personal growth and success await those who are willing to put in the hours studying. By putting their efforts into reading and writing, the inmate students serve model prisoners. For many, education is a way to make amends. Their education demonstrates their willingness to change their ways and become a citizen that can contribute to society. 

It may feel like it at times, but inmates enrolled in educational programs are not alone. There are thousands of inmates enrolled in correctional education programs and correspondence programs across the nation. And those programs do make a difference. Correctional education programs significantly increase the participants’ test scores and literacy. Correspondence programs likewise, increase the marketability of newly released individuals in the job market. This of course benefits society immensely.