Thursday, January 16, 2014

Another Brick In the Wall

By Vernon Robinson

A couple of weeks ago, I had to go to the school building here in the prison to interview for a new group. When I got there, I was escorted to a room to be interviewed. There were three tables in there, along with a different Rutgers student sitting behind each. Once I was summoned to one of the tables, the student that was at that table greeted me and asked me to sit down. As I sat down, I noticed soothing music was playing in the CD player over by the window. The student asked me to hold on for a minute while she retrieved some papers. As she was rummaging through her belongings, I began to look around the room. I felt a cool breeze coming through the window as the music played softly from the speakers. I looked further and I noticed the other two Rutgers students waiting for their subjects to arrive. Then my eyes were drawn to the bookcase that I had initially overlooked. What was in this bookcase of elementary school books that caught my eye? It was a book called Galaxies.

I remembered this book. I remembered Galaxies from elementary school. It was a simple book that was published by Houghton Mifflin Company, and it was instructional for elementary kids. It had short stories, poems, jokes, informational articles, and skill lessons designed to enrich a child's learning experience. So why did this book now pique my interest as a 39-year old man? I hadn't seen this book in at least thirty years, but why did it grab me so? I couldn't answer that question in that moment, but I was completely enthralled by the book and perplexed by the allure this book held for me.

Whatever the case, I had to have this book. For what reason, I didn't know. I later approached one of the school workers and asked him if he could acquire the book for me. He told me he would, but I could see in his demeanor that it wasn't going to be a priority. After about a week, I approached another school worker to ask him if he might be able to retrieve the book, and he told me he would try. Some more time had passed, and, at the same time, the euphoria had pretty much worn off. Some weeks later, I was called back to the school building for another interview. When I went into the room this time, I looked straight to the bookcase. My eyes zeroed in on Galaxies, and I made a mental note of where it was located in the bookcase. When I left the school building that day, I went to yet another school worker and asked him would he be able to get the book. I told him the approximate location and everything, to which he replied, "I'll see what I can do."

About a week had passed and I'd pretty much forgotten about the book. The previous guys that I asked to get it didn't seem too interested in helping me, so why would the third be any different? One day I was in my cell and the third guy came knocking at my door. When I opened the door to my cell, the guy handed me a book. He looked puzzled. He said, "I don't know why you want this, but here it is." His tone was almost condescending. After realizing that my request, on its face, looked preposterous, I actually understood his bewilderment at my reasons for asking for this introductory book. I thanked him and he left my cell. As soon as he handed me the book, I sort of zoned out for a second. Once I regained my senses, I knew that if I were to look into a mirror, I would see that my face was awash in astonishment. Now I'm sure that he thought I was crazy!

I immediately took the book into the cell and put my curtain up in order to get some privacy. I didn't want to be bothered. When I sat in the confines of my cell with no noise to disturb me, I took a good look at the book. Wow! I thought. It looked just like it did back in elementary school. I flipped through the pages and realized that the cover and the pages had the same texture that they had 30 years ago. When I stopped at this specific page, my whole being was flooded with a sense of nostalgia. The page I stopped on was a story called "Surreal: 3000 A.D." by Suzanne Martel. The stop here was not happenstance, no it wasn't. I remembered this story because it was something I read in my youth and it intrigued me. I immediately was drawn to the picture, the story, and even the smell of the book now. These feeling that I was having about this book were overwhelming, but they became stronger every minute that I held this book. After I read the story, I continued to flip through the pages of this book. I had to keep stopping because of several reasons: this picture opened up a memory, those words opened up a memory, another picture opened up a memory... and on and on. Even the division of the chapters was instrumental in making me relive my youth. But why was this simple book holding my attention like this?

Over the next few days, I continued to flip through the book, as I was entranced by so much in it. With every flip of a page or every reading of a short story or lesson, I became slightly more aware of why I was drawn to this book. The comprehension began to come in slowly, but it picked up pace like an investigator finding a trail of clues. One of the first things I remembered was that Galaxies was the ultimate book in elementary school. You had to complete a number of other instructional books in order to get to Galaxies. It was sort of the coup de grace of learning in elementary school, the apex, if you will. My memory of the other books began to come into focus. I think the penultimate book was Kaleidoscope. I remember the two other books were called Panorama and Rainbows. Rainbows was the first book you were given in order to get to the rest. I don't think I spent much time on Rainbows because I got skipped a couple of grades. But all this came to me, and I seemed to remember it vividly now. But still, why was this book, Galaxies, so bewitching to me?

After roughly two weeks with this book, it hit me! I never actually got to read Galaxies in school. I skimmed through it, but I never got to go through the actual lessons and read it in its entirety. By me being skipped twice in elementary school, there was a lot of curriculum that I started but didn't get to finish because I was moving at an irregular pace. Actually, I don't think I got a chance to finish either of the books because I always out-paced and out-read everybody else…

Wait a minute! I now know why this book had (and slightly still has) me dazzled. Galaxies was my objective when I was a youth. This book brought me back feeling of aspirations! I knew that Galaxies was the peak, and I was determined to get there. I even read some of it before it was my time. I was determined to get to the top, and Galaxies was it. I not only wanted to learn, but I wanted to tackle the best to learn. The thing was, I never got to Galaxies because I surpassed it. I actually accomplished what I was trying to do, but the memory that Galaxies was my aim at one time was never discarded from my memory.

I'm glad that it wasn't, because it reminded me of who I can be and what I can accomplish if I put my mind to it. Even though my Galaxies is now on a grander scale, that doesn't render my old pursuit of the book Galaxies as trivial.

Galaxies was not just an instructional textbook for elementary students, it was a life lesson for me. Will I reach Galaxies now, or will I surpass it? Let's see!

Vernon Robinson CB3895
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426

Vernon Robinson is currently incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution Graterford in Pennsylvania.  He specializes in editing and proofreading and has a few published works to his credit.  He is also the secretary of the Lifers' Right to Redemption Committee - a committee dedicated to the eradication of Life Without Parole sentences and educating the public about the Life-sentenced individual's capacity to change and become an asset to society.  Vernon considers his greatest accomplishment to be his beautiful daughter.  His hope is that some of the things he does will somehow influence others positively.

The Cost of Incarceration: Who Pays the Price? A Case for Educating America`s Prisoners
By Chasity West

Although many people believe that one of the chief purposes of prison is rehabilitation, some think that incarceration should be a strictly punitive experience. To these people, correctional education might seem like an undeserved luxury, a reward for bad behavior. Still, others take no position at all. But since all communities are interconnected, anyone who pays taxes or cares about creating a better society should take an interest in prison education. Investing in correctional education creates positive, long-term benefits for offenders, lowers recidivism, builds stronger communities and ultimately, saves money.

Many citizens believe that affording education opportunities to the incarcerated is a waste of time and resources. After all, prison is a place for punishment, not higher learning. Some consider education an indulgence of sorts that society should not extend to those who have committed crimes. However, what these people might not realize is how much this attitude costs them. A 2007 study conducted by Pew Charitable Trusts projected that by the year 2011, 1 in |82 Americans would be serving time (Mercer). Currently, 2.3 million people fill correctional institutions throughout the country (HB 6539, 2011). The United States Department of Justice (USDOJ) has estimated that once released from correctional facilities, one-half to two-thirds of these offenders are likely to recidivate (Mercer). Combine this sum with the number of offenders who are already incarcerated. Add this to the anticipated number of people who will commit crimes and end up in the system, Now multiply this number by $48,545*, the average cost of incarcerated per inmate. This is how much prisons pick from the American public’s pocket each year. When considering this figure, “paying for crime” takes on a whole new meaning.

Empirical studies show that uneducated or undereducated offenders are far more apt to recidivate because they are less likely to be able to find a job upon release. An offender who has not attended correctional education programs during incarceration is 3.7 times more likely to become a recidivist offender after she has been released from custody, whole compared with an offender who has participated in correctional education programs while incarcerated (Nally, Lockwood, Knutson, and Ho 79). The more education an offender acquires, the less likely she is to return to the correctional population. Yet many correctional institutions do little to prepare inmates for the challenges that face them in the work force. Sanford Ungar, in “The New Liberal Arts," emphasizes this point. He informs us that more than three-quarters of our nation’s employers suggest that students pursue a “liberal arts” education. Most employers appreciate potential employees who have “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing.” Those who have developed “better critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills" usually make the best employees because they have “the ability to innovate and be creative" (192) Many people in correctional facilities lack these skills, The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that only 12.7% of incarcerated individuals have attended or graduated from college, compared to 48.4% of the general population (Mercer 3). In order for recidivism to be on the decline, higher education must be on the rise.

With the 1994 elimination of Pell grants for prisoners, there is little funding for correctional education. Taxpayers already resent having to pay for the basic needs of the incarcerated, let alone pay for our educations. Needless to say, public support for prison education is far from overwhelming. The public’s attitude and policy makers’ aversion to people in the Big House receiving educations on the house have aggravated the current problem of recidivism and prison overcrowding. Statistics prove that creating harsher laws to punish criminal behavior does not deter crime but rather keep our prisons filled.
Law, no matter how strict, does not address behavior or correct the root of the problem. It only punishes it. Being “tough on crime" seems to take precedence over reducing it.

The public might not be aware of the positive return on their investment in correctional education - both from a financial and societal standpoint. The economic argument is that higher levels of education reduce crime, which would then lead to a reduction in costs associated with incarceration. According to a 1999 study conducted by the Florida D.O.C., the typical return on investment in US$1.66 for every dollar invested in correctional education-a deal most people would not pass up (Mercer 7). Not only can the financial aspects be measured in terms of reduction of recidivism on a per inmate basis, but also post-secondary education during incarceration increases the likelihood of finding employment. In short, by staying out of prison, an offender allows taxpayers to keep more money in their pockets; by gaining employment, an ex-offender is then able to contribute to the overall economic health of the state. The societal argument is much the same: less crime means safer communities. Safer communities mean fewer prisons. The more people that stay out of prison and in the community the richer our communities become. With education, we can create a new cycle that will free taxpayers from yet another gratuitous expense. Adult children would be available to care for aging parents instead of relying on others or placing them in government-funded nursing homes. Fewer children would be funneled into the system. Parents would be able to parent. Mothers and fathers would be available to care for their children instead of depending on relatives or state agencies to place children in foster homes thereby keeping families intact and breaking the cycle of incarceration.

Another reason why the public might be reluctant to encourage prison education is that it does not want prison to become the new college campus. Some might think that prison would lose its deterrence value if committing a crime came with the incentive of a complimentary education. If avoiding tens of thousands of dollars in student loans for a “free” education in prison seems at all attractive, it holds its appeal only from the other side of the fence. Once behind these walls, one cannot ignore the horrors that come with confinement: privacy violations, poor nutrition, inadequate healthcare, medical neglect, labor exploitations, verbal, physical and sexual abuse, and the list continues. Few people would consider swapping their freedom and protection from these abuses for any amount of education a fair trade.

Considering both the hardships of reintegrating into society and the overall benefits of educating prisoners, still correctional education programs are often met with resistance from prison staff. Some of the teacher’s aides who tutor the male inmate students enrolled in Wesleyan Prison Education Program at Cheshire Correctional Institution in Connecticut report that many prison guards resent that prisoners are receiving educations that the prison staff"s children cannot afford. Hostile guards ask, “What does my kid have to do to get an education like this, kill somebody'?” It is unfortunate that we live in a society where education is considered a privilege. It is also unfortunate that not all citizens have equal access to postsecondary education. However, institutes of higher learning such as Three Rivers College, Quinnipiac University, Trinity College, and Wesleyan University recognize that education is not a reward, but a responsibility in which everyone in the community should participate in helping others fulfill,

What many people fail to recognize is that most people in correctional facilities will one day be released into the general population. Varying opinions concerning the function of prison directly affect the degree to which offenders receive rehabilitative services while incarcerated. Whether the system fails or succeeds in doing its job, either way, it will translate into the community once the offender is set free. In “Reentry: Helping Prisoners Return to Communities," Elizabeth Gaynes, executive director of the Osborne Association, validates how important it is for everyone to take an interest in correctional education. She encourages, “[c]ommunities should take an active role in determining what services people receive while incarcerated and demanding effective programming that relates to post-release needs.” Public perception directly affects prison leadership. This in turn, controls the climate of a correctional facility. Whether retributive or rehabilitative, the prison’s operation and purpose take on that form. These factors directly shape a prisoner’s experience Surely, a sensible society would prefer to live among people who have been adequately rehabilitated when in prison and who are able to be contributing members to the community into which they are released. So before people cast their vote against prison education, they must first realize that they are essentially choosing who and what their potential neighbors will be.

From a small to large-scale basis, education creates healthier people who will in tum comprise the community at large. Viewing this in the reverse, education builds self-esteem and helps a person place her situation in a social context. In a place that depletes a woman of her dignity and self-worth, correctional education replaces some of what the system strips away. It also serves as a tool in helping a person understand herself and the community around her. Education provides lifelong benefits that one cannot put a price on. 

So what kind of education should incarcerated people receive? The trend has always slanted toward vocational training. But is this enough? While acknowledging the difficulties that arise with funding higher learning programs, Sanford J. Ungar explains the importance of a liberal arts education. He explains, “[f]inancial issues cannot be ignored, but neither can certain eternal verities: through immersion in liberal arts, students learn not just to make a living, but also to live a life rich in values and character. They come to terms with complexity and diversity, and otherwise devise means to solve problems. They develop patterns that help them understand how to keep learning for the rest of their lives: (196). The issues Ungar addresses extend to every community and cross all social borders. In his commencement speech, David Foster Wallace concurs with Ungar. Wallace highlights the value of liberal arts education, recognizing it as a tool in teaching a person how to think and what to think about (l99, 202). This ability could have a positive impact on all of us, including the many women who return to prison for “survival crimes” such as check forgery, minor embezzlement and prostitution. By forming conscious decisions, a person can develop clearer insight and keener awareness concerning her decisions, options and actions, Poor decision-making, a perceived lack of options, and the inability to consider alternatives often contribute to criminal conduct. If a person can develop the ability to control her thoughts, she can also change and expand her way of thinking and behaving

Through our failures to properly address recidivism and its direct correlation with lack of access to education, our society fails itself. As the problem persist, we simply look to the same tired remedy as a solution. Rather than investing in education to redress the problems of recidivism and prison overcrowding, we instead invest in prisons to warehouse people who, without any meaningful rehabilitative measures, will likely reenter society in the same shape they were in when they first entered the system and because of this, they will almost certainly return to the prison population.

Liberal arts education in correctional facilities helps incarcerated people learn ethical precepts that will guide their behavior in society as well as equip the ex-offender with the proper tools to better serve the community. Education does not lessen the punishment incarceration inflicts; it does enable an offender to make better decisions, set new goals and behave differently once she is released back into society. Educating the incarcerated is not a waste but a must if we intend to build stronger, cohesive communities and save money. Once the public understands these facts, perhaps more people would not only support correctional education but also demand that higher education be available in every state and federal correctional facility across the country. Once we look at our national deficit, we cannot afford not to. As long as crime exists, one way or another we all pay. The question is: how much?

* Source:  HR 6539 CORE-CT Financial Accounting System Judiciary Department of Offenses and Revenue Database

Work Cited

An Act Concerning Sentence Modifications. Raised Bill No. HB 6539. CT
            General Assembly. January Session, 2011.

Gaynes, Elizabeth. Reentry: Helping Former Prisoners Return To
           Communities. Ed. Jacqueline Lalley. Maryland: Annie E. Casey
           Foundation, 2005. Print.

Mercer, Kerri Russo. “The Importance of Funding Postsecondary Correctional
          Education Programs.” Community ColIege Review 37.2 (200): 153-64.
          EBSCO. Web. 10 May 2013. Print. 

Nally, John, Susan Lockwood, Katie Knutson, Taiping Ho. “An Evaluation of
          the Effect of Correctional Education Programs for Post-Release
          Recidivism and Employment: An Empirical Study in Indiana.” The
          Journal of Correctional Education 63.1 (2012) 69-88. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. “Kenyon Speech Commencement,” Kenyon, O1-1. 21 May
          2005 Rpt. in Graff et al. They Say I Say: The Moves That Matter in
          Academic Writing, 2nd Edition New York: W.W. Norton & Company

Ungar, Sanford J. “The New Liberal Arts, “ 2010. Rpt in Graff et al. They Say, I
         Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, 2” Edition New York:
         W.W. Norton & Company (190-197). Print.

Chasity West 266589
York CI
201 West Main Street
Niantic, CT 06357

My name is Chasity West and I’m a lifelong native of Connecticut.  Prior to my arrest I worked as a licensed nurse.  In 1998 I was sentenced to life without parole on a first offense. Since my imprisonment I have written dozens of short stories, memoirs, essays and poems.  I have immersed myself in many projects and programs, including writing workshops, dance and yoga classes, college courses, gardening and agriculture and drama classes. I think that prison can be a catalyst for self-reform.

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