Incarcerated Man Makes a Compelling Argument for Higher Ed

Screen Shot 2015-04-05 at 12.46.02 PMYesterday I mentioned that it would be great to hear more about cool things that incarcerated people are doing on the inside. I missed an op ed published in the New York Times by John J. Lennon, currently locked up at Attica. His article advocates for more educational opportunities in prisons, suggesting that MOOCs could be used to supplement traditional college programs that should also be expanded.

College programs in prisons are the best possible investment to reduce recidivism, as well as violence on the inside. But far more importantly, higher education is something that should be accessible to all who care to pursue it and who are able to complete the coursework.

As a liberal arts graduate and the daughter of two college professors and administrators, I’ve never believed (or been expected to believe) that the true value of higher education lies in the career prospects it affords (much less my ability to stay out of prison as a college grad). No one ever suggested that I should only go to college if it was a practical necessity, or that I should stop taking classes or pursuing a graduate degree if I couldn’t quantify marginal returns on the investment. The pursuit of knowledge, the project of exercising my mind and my voice, is something I’ve been raised to believe is fundamentally valuable and important. I’m sure that my experience is not universal to my socioeconomic class, but it’s far from unique.

I would bet that in Mr. Lennon’s world, few of the decision makers in state government or corrections believe that his education, and the education of his fellow prisoners, has the same kind of intrinsic value that mine has. Scarier yet, I personally witnessed a conference full of people running education-in-prison programs promote their work on the same state-interests platform that Governor Cuomo and prison officials use to justify the programs.

Why does it matter?

First, cost-based arguments are effective only insofar as people aren’t comfortable bearing the costs if education isn’t provided. It’s one thing to cave to opposition when you’ve made a statement about the cost-effectiveness of a program; it’s another thing entirely to say “this is about human dignity” and then back off. (In fact, New York’s Governor Cuomo did promote college-in-prison funding for cost-based reasons and did back off in the face of opposition.)

But more importantly, couching college-in-prison programs as cost-saving measures for some members of society and not others sends a frightening message: people like me should go to college to grow, to learn, to contribute to the world as a student and as a graduate. People like Mr. Lennon should be go to college to stay out of prison and stop being such a pain in the government’s ass.

This double standard is so widely applied that college-in-prison professors, sympathetic media (I’m looking at you, NYT), and other allies frequently fail to notice the distinction. But Mr. Lennon’s article effectively combats the notion that recidivism and crowd control are the only reasons to offer college classes in prison.

He describes a creative writing workshop that helped him recognize his “untapped talent.” But as he developed a passion for learning and pursued additional education, he came to understand the significance of his own mistakes: “I’ve realized that I deprived the man I killed of ever discovering his potential, his human essence,” Mr. Lennon writes. “I grapple with this shame.”

His college program has also allowed him to be a positive role model for his neighbor, Roberto Rivera. 

He asks about what I’m learning. So I tell him about the theories and concepts — Machiavellianism, Marxism, social Darwinism — that my cranky and brilliant instructor weaves through all of his lectures. I show Roberto my writing, pass him my subscriptions, sections of this newspaper, issues of The New Yorker and The Atlantic. I try to make education and intellect look cool. It seems to work.

Mr. Rivera is applying for the next available college class at Attica, but only 20 of the 2,300 prisoners at Attica will be enrolled, and 200 others are applying for the class. How sad if his growing curiosity, a curiosity that I’ve been able to capitalize on in college and in law school, is denied an outlet, tamped down, and perhaps extinguished.

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