By Johnathan Bolden, Social Media Advisor – Prison Scholar Fund
It is common for incarcerated individuals to view corrections education with suspicion, or even to remain hostile to its positive influences. For some of us, school has been a source of negativity, where detentions and suspensions replaced common sense and counseling, and law enforcement became an ever increasing presence on campus. Overcrowded classrooms and overworked teachers only exacerbated a situation stressed for relief and resources. Given such circumstances, one doesn’t need to stretch reason to understand why some who find themselves behind bars are reluctant to embrace education as a pathway to positive change.
This sentiment underscores the “school to prison pipeline” thesis that informs many criminological studies of today. Policies and practices that criminalize and overpolice schoolchildren, who in many cases come from disadvantaged households and communities, only leads to these same children filling our prisons as young adults. These policies and practices drive a reinforcing cycle in which part of the solution (education) to the problem (crime, recidivism, social ills, etc.) is viewed as a problem by those with criminal inclinations, by those who need education the most.
Not surprisingly, calling on the criminal justice system to address issues traditionally handled by family and teachers has had disastrous consequences for our communities.
But every challenge presents within it the opportunity to overcome it. And in terms of reducing recidivism and improving community safety (and morale), corrections education has been shown to meet that challenge.
As an incarcerated individual, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of education, particularly postsecondary education, within the corrections environment. Corrections education bridges that gulf between the mainstream and the margins of our society. It decreases the alienation and distrust that the incarcerated hold towards society’s authority and institutions by introducing them to the world of ideas and possibilities. There is no other substitute for the positive indoctrination in the socially-accepted beliefs and values of our society that education fosters.
Personally, attaining my AA degree was a bittersweet experience. Up until that point in my life, I was a failure by the most forgiving of standards, and it took me coming to prison to accomplish something meaningful. It wasn’t that postsecondary education deposited within me historical facts, developed my math skills, and (poof!) I was then changed for the better. No, it was a difficult process of self-discovery that ultimately made me feel connected to society as I understood my place and purpose in it.
To this point, personal accountability and personal responsibility are values that can only be instilled through either demonstration or education. And while myself and others, who have made similar changes, model the benefits of corrections education through mentorship, the reality is the corrections environment is a breeding ground of criminality. We need strong, well-adapted corrections education programs to empower, encourage, and inspire incarcerated individuals to become more than the sum of their bad choices, more than the product of their troubled circumstances.
As a society, when we discuss community safety and criminal justice, it is a discussion of our morals and values. Thus, our corrections institutions should correct and our criminal justice system should produce justice. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a profound thinker and writer of Russian literature, believed that the “degree of civilization within a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” I would hope that here in the United States we could do better and see the promise of our ideals reflected in those individuals who leave prison.
Note from the author: This post isn’t meant to discredit or malign Washington State’s educational system or its criminal justice system. Social dynamics are complex, and therefore require an equally sophisticated approach to understanding them. Part of this approach involves honest and open discussions about the issues that concern us all.
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