When It Comes to Correctional Education, Advocates Must Fight For Access

By Sarah Sibley


How can correctional facilities better the educational goals of their populations? (Wikimedia)

Advocates know correctional education concretely betters the lives of prisoners and lessens the social cost of incarceration in communities. Serving a population where forty percent to do not have a high school diploma, prison education programs not only address pre-existing inequities by offering GED, vocational, or even college-level courses, they also significantly reduce recidivism rates. However, correctional education programs are underfunded and operate under conditions that make them chronically vulnerable to authorities hostile or indifferent to their mission. As a result, advocates must learn work within seemingly arbitrary prison regulations or risk being excluded entirely.

According to the Rand Corporation, prisoners who participate in at least some form of education program “are up to 43 percent less likely to reoffend and return to prison.” What’s more, prisoners are more likely to be employed upon release, with carry-on effects for their families and communities writ-large. Policy-makers, too, can take heart that “every dollar invested in correctional education… saves nearly five in re-incarceration costs over three years” (RAND). Considering that 95% of the incarcerated will be released at some point-that’s 700,000 every year- it makes sound policy sense to invest in a prisoner’s education.

What makes for smart public policy can make for dumb politics, however, and what should be a common-sense investment has ranked very low on political officials’ legislative wish-list. Instead, many legislators view prison education programs as an extravagance. One New York legislator, for example, supported “necessary” programs, but was unwilling to support  “willy nilly” college programs for a group that is seen as undeserving. Unsurprisingly, the average state spends only six percent of its corrections budget on educational programs. The federal government has historically been less than helpful on this front as well- in 1994 Congress took the backward step of stripping prisoners’ of their Pell Grants (Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan introduced a program to reinstate them in 2015).

Can prison education systems unlock opportunities for the incarcerated? (By Slingpool – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

As a result, prison education programs have to bear the dual burdens of a shoe-string budget and a gauntlet of arbitrary staff-level decision-making. Teachers often find their educational mission compromised by hostile prison regulation and censorship. Last fall, the Marshall Project outlined the long saga of Arthur Longworth, a prisoner serving life without parole for a 1985 murder, and his memoir, Zek. Prison staff not only banned the memoir within the prison itself, they also banned its public release, and the manuscript had to be smuggled out by Longworth’s volunteer English teacher (who is now facing sanctions).

The Supreme Court ruled in 1987 Turner v. Safley that “prison walls do not form a barrier separating inmates from the protections of the Constitution.” While the Court spoke aspirationally of the indelible Constitutional rights of the incarcerated, its opinion handed prison staff an insurmountable tool- prisoner’s speech can be limited when “legitimate penological concerns” are at stake.  As Paul Wright explains, again in the Marshall Project,  exactly what constitutes a “legitimate” penological concern is the unchecked purview of low-level prison staff, and prisoners have little recourse to dispute their decisions.

“Censorship” decisions are often made, according to Wright, by “some Bozo in the mail room without any expertise in constitutional law, and in a totally arbitrary way.” For example, a Colorado prison cited “security concerns” when banning President Obama’s memoir, and a Washington prison banned materials for the game Dungeon and Dragons out of fears it would encourage gang violence.  The Marshall Project’s Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Prison Censor” quiz includes a list of books that have been banned in prisons across the country, including a history of Auschwitz and a story book Bible over concerns of “graphic content.”

More generally, the asymmetric relationship between prison staff and the incarcerated leaves the incarcerated systemically vulnerable. Students in correctional education programs are simultaneously empowered by their education and disempowered by the whims of corrections officers. For example, Arthur Longworth spent months in solitary confinement as punishment for publishing his book. Another prison sued two women for rights to their own memoir, since the prison had “owned” their labor during the time of their writing.

Prison education programs work, but they operate under adverse legal conditions and funding may often come at a drip. Prison advocates and the incarcerated themselves must instead become experts at the fine art of public policy xeriscaping- that is, making do with little. Advocates work best when they help to facilitate the incarcerated’s access to the outside world. To do this successfully requires more than a little chutzpah.