By LSD Gonzalez
There is no point in romanticizing the issue of the miseducation of incarcerated citizens. Going hack to the beginnings early days of the United States, it was illegal to educate incarcerated citizens because prison bureaucrats and officials correctly recognized that incarcerated citizens with education would be even more discontented with their current conditions, therefore more dangerous and more rebellious. If we take an in-depth and honest look at the correctional educational system before us, we cannot accept the current standards and benchmarks that were set in motion by the power elites.
The 2.3 million incarcerated citizens in the United States have become one of the defining qualities of our country. Never before in the history of civilization has a country locked away so many of its own citizens. Have we as a society become so violent, so counterproductive, so incorrigible, that we have to lock away so many of our citizens under the guise of "Public Safety?"
The cost to incarcerate so many men and women is astronomical! The average annual cost per citizen is $35,000. However, that number jumps to at staggering $60,000 once the person turns 55 years old. Medical expenses increase the annual cost. Moreover, if the incarcerated citizen is a parent, the cost and consequence go far beyond the criminal justice system. For instance, the children of incarcerated citizens may have to be raised by other family members, or are sent to a state’s foster care system. Children of incarcerated citizens are seven times more likely to become incarcerated themselves, which perpetuates an intergenerational incarceration cycle. Warehousing and punishing citizens who are illiterate or functionally illiterate, then releasing them back into society without any education, trades or skills, is a recipe for failure.
Furthermore, the violence that exists in our penal systems poses a much greater threat to public safety than any foreign terrorist group, in that these violent offenders go back into society and wreck havoc on the public.
If society is serious about improving the quality of its citizens' lives, it should no longer ignore the treatment of its incarcerated citizens. In addition, if society intends to reduce crime and recidivism, it must provide a pathway that will enable people to get out of poverty by giving incarcerated citizens meaningful job skills and decent wages. In doing so the elite would not need to put those who they consider “unproductive” in prison. Those who were once considered unproductive citizens would become assets to society.
The best way to improve citizens' chances of getting out of poverty and becoming productive citizens is to empower them with the best education possible, job skills, at least minimum wages, not increasing his or her monthly child support immediately upon release, and providing a grace period to may fines and fees.
America's bridge for the twenty-first century is no longer education. Incarceration is now at the top of the list. The prison industrial complex is already generating forty billion dollars annually. Therefore, rehabilitation, whatever that means, is out of the question because our keepers no longer believe incarcerated citizens have redeeming qualities. Our prisons are filled beyond capacity, and the statistical outlook is dismal.
The United States currently locks up more people per capita than any other nation on this earth. For every African American or Hispanic with a Bachelor Degree, there are thirty behind bars. There are more young African American and Hispanic males in prison today than in college.
In my opinion, the prison educational system is abysmal at best. This statement is not intended to be deterministic, but rather to draw attention to the need to offer incarcerated citizens who are eager to learn an opportunity to educate themselves in prisons throughout the United States.
My focus is on one maximum-security prison in particular, in the North East-Mid Atlantic region, and it is the sixth largest State Correctional Institution in the United States, SCI-Graterford, built in 1929. This prison is a good model because it prides itself on having one of the longest operating college programs in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It has been educating men for many decades.
There are different levels of education available in Graterford: G.E.D and vocational training/apprenticeship programs, and a limited post-secondary education program. The vast majority of incarcerated citizens enrolled in the G.E.D. programs. Only a few incarcerated citizens are fortunate enough to have access to post-secondary education.
A good well-founded school is the best place to learn. For some, prisons are the best prospect for them to get an education! For example, I entered the Department of Correction twenty-nine years ago with an IQ of 56. I had no reading or writing skills. Today, I'm a graduate of Villanova University with a minor in marketing and history, I’m also an accomplished author with six publish novels. Thus, it is fair to say that I'm a product of the prison educational system. I have learned that it doesn't matter where one gets an education. What really matters is that one gets as good of an education as possible.
Despite the resistance of some in society and within the Department of Correction toward incarcerated citizens receiving education, my eagerness to learn is paying off.
Prison education is equally limited by its policy and suffers from various environmental problems. For instance, the primary purpose of prisons is security. Thus, education falls to the rear. Students experience frequent class interruption due to drills, scheduling mishaps, lock downs, and rude correctional guards with the seemingly sole purpose of agitating and discouraging students. Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people who come down to some perfectly contented class within the institution and sow the seeds of discontent among the students.
Prison policy can also arbitrarily remove any incarcerated citizen or an entire group of students from their educational program on whims with a stroke of the pen. For example, incarcerated citizens serving life sentences in Pennsylvania were removed from all G.E.D classes after a policy decision was made. Lifers and long-term sentenced incarcerated citizens are subject to a quota system in the vocational programs, which limits their numbers, enrollments, and participation. Policy is powerful in prison and it is hard to counter.
Educational programs in prison also suffer from budget issues. Prison budgets are going up but prison educational budget are being cut,. Moreover, the educational budget does not increase at the same rates as the number of incarceration citizens does. Thus, when cuts must he made, prison educational budget gets the brunt of the cuts. Why are prison officials turning a blind eye when it comes to educating the incarcerated citizens when studies after studies have proven when incarcerated citizens are allowed to educate themselves they go back into their community with a new found desire to transforms their community?
A recent budget cut battle in Pennsylvania resulted in dramatic cuts in vocational training, E.S.L. English as Second Language classes, and subsidized community college classes, as a result, we now have n large number of incarcerated citizens who can not enroll in educational programs. Hispanics who do not speak the English language are cut off completely from participating in any school programs. Those incarcerated citizens who need to improve their reading and writing skills are unable to qualify for the pre-G.E.D. and are cut off from enrolling in school due to the lack of teachers, ninety percent of the incarcerated citizens who are being cut off from acquiring education will return back into society one day, and this is the reason why society should care.
Dr. Monique Redeaux, a middle school teacher in the west side of Chicago wrote that
"Emancipation may have ended slavery but it did not end its legacy of exclusion and exploitation. This legacy of a different and inferior "other" was evidenced by the segregation laws of the Jim Crow era, which kept the races separate. The remnants of these laws can be seen in culture-of-poverty models created during that same period and which maintain their vitality today."
Dr. Redeaux's words could not have been more clear. They clearly describe the current educational system within the penal system in America.
Denying the incarcerated citizens a proper education is deeply rooted in the same Jim Crow laws, which have been used to discriminate against minorities for centuries. It is also a tangible form of control. Yet, the public reaction has been minimal in that incarcerated citizens across America are completely ostracized from society.
To the few concerned citizens who are sympathetic, those of us who are being brutalized by racist prison policies across the landscape of the penal system, we appreciate your effort, time, and dedication. Nevertheless, it is your duty to question the Department of Correction Educational polices. It is your tax dollars, and there should he some accountability because there is a direct social, economic, political, cultural, and community interest link between prison and the communities from, which the majority incarcerated citizens come from.
The fundamental assumption, which guide and govern failing penal institutions and on which social, criminal justice theories, analyses, decisions and policies are based, are no longer valid. Demographics of both inner cities and prison populations have changed dramatically over the last 15-25 years, while the assumptions of the Department of Correction have remained sacrosanct. Prison educational budget cuts are inevitable. What is inexcusable, however, is the failure to engage in a sincere open-hearted mission to educate incarcerated citizens. Not doing so not only demonizes incarcerated citizens, but it fails to indict a penal system responsible for disenfranchising the citizens it is warehousing
The negative attitude the Department of Correction's teachers develop toward incarcerated citizen is a reality in many correctional institutions across America. A contributing factor of the miseducation of the incarcerated male citizens is the quality of teachers the Department of Correction hire. Most of the teachers in corrections lack leadership and innovation, and Department of Correction does not hold them accountable. Department of Corrections teachers are not trained to tap into the potential of incarcerated citizens.
It is no secret that the Department of Correction's educational system is structured to benefit somebody’s interest, but whose? We all hope society benefits from attempts to educate incarcerated citizens in that the aim of rehabilitative education is to reduce crime and recidivism. But the numbers do not bear this out. The life outcomes of those incarcerated citizens with G.E.D.’s do not differ much from those without one. Things are tough for incarcerated citizens, and for G.E.D. holders with criminal convictions. So there it little hope for society's benefit. However, studies show that incarcerated citizens who get a two to four years college degree while incarcerated are 65% more likely to succeed when released.
The Department of Correction and its employees are the ones who benefit from the current system. They get paid well, have job security, and aren't expected to in much work. All they have to do is show up; the prison educational system requires very little from its educators. There is no attempt to guarantee excellence.
The Ideal Prison Educational System
In an ideal world, prisons would actually educate their citizens. How could this be accomplished?
1. All incarcerated citizens should be screened for skills and abilities. Vocational counselor should make a personalized educational plea for every incarcerated citizen. The incarcerated citizen should have highly qualified, professional teachers, and instructors. The educator’s salary should be linked with the incarcerated citizen’s academic performance.
2. All resources should be used to educate the incarcerated citizen. Every incarcerated citizen should be given a tutor. Tutors would be those lifers who have been through the college progress. This will offer the elite group of incarcerated citizens the opportunity to use their college degrees. The tutors can be paid at rates higher than the normal prison scale to show how serious and respected their services are. Those incarcerated citizens who have already completed the G.E.D. program should automatically have access to post-secondary educational programs.
African Americans, Hispanics and whites that have completed their college education can provide an encouraging free environment. Education will also be provided to those in restricted housing units and on Death Row in a way that takes security into account.
3. Life-term incarcerated citizens who volunteer their services and time to educate new arrivals should be considered for commutation after a number of years. Pennsylvania is one of the only few states where life means life. It’s also one of the only few states where the lifers population controls the flow of prison activities in most of the institutions across the state.
The younger generation of incarcerated citizens always seeks constructive advise from the lifers. So why not use the lifers to mentor the younger incarcerated citizens? It's a known fact that incarcerated citizens who earn college-universities degree while incarcerated don’t re-offend.
This ideal model would mean a prison system that prepares incarcerated citizens to grapple with the challenges they will face in society upon release. It offers incarcerated citizens a chance against the social forces that undermine their humanity.
Towards a New System
How does an incarcerated citizen in prison confront the cultural mindsets, the layers of misinformation, propagated by the prison staff?
All incarcerated citizens are products of the stigmatization that comes with being incarcerated and/or enrolled in the penal educational system.
Most incarcerated men and women come from a distinctive cultural where they must maintain respect with their peers. It is hard for many to admit that he or she can't read or write. Others may feel they will be stigmatized. I clearly understand this because once upon a time I was considered a functioning illiterate. However, as grown adults, we must be able to navigate through this maze we call prison, and understand that just because we are incarcerated it doesn't mean we lose out human qualities. We should not let our minds get closed to new ideas. Nor should our quest for a better education be discouraged. We should never fortify our identity, or allow ourselves to become dehumanized, demoralized, desensitized, nor accept the stigma.
Many of our nations great leaders have been confined in prisons and still made meaningful contributions to our communities and society. Men like Dr. Martin Luther Kings Jr., who wrote remarkable work from the Birmingham County Jail and Malcolm X’s educational transformation in prison, were astounding. There should never be any negotiation about your freedom or education. It should be the desire of every incarcerated citizen across the landscape of America’s penal system to educate him or herself while incarcerated. Every incarcerated citizen, regardless of their race, age, or creed, can learn from each other.
There is no illusion that obtaining an education while incarcerated will be easy. Opposition will come from all angles. Prison guards who feel you should not be educated will go out their way to prevent you from reaching your goals, and other incarcerated citizens will too. The Department of Correction is designed to make you feel less than human. As Carter C. Woodson wrote in 1933,
"The sane educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worthwhile depressed and crushed at the same time the spark or genius of the Negro by making them feel that their race dose not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other people."
In Woodson's view, "real education means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better."
As an incarcerated citizen with a quest for education we must keep in mind that the majority of the prison guards who society hires to watch over us so-called hardened criminals only need a G.E.D. to be hired by the Department of Correction. It doesn't take a social scientist to strip another man or woman nude, or to turn a key. For many guards working within the Department of Correction is their only means of livelihood.
There comes a time when we, the incarcerated citizens must get tired of watching prison guards support their families off our backbone, while our families travel miles to visit us in prison, and spend their money on over-priced vending machines in prison visiting rooms.
When will we the incarcerated citizens realized that when a state chooses to invest in prisons instead of education, the avenues for our children are clear?
There comes a time when we, the incarcerated citizens, must realize that education must be a lifelong process. We must find critical and creative ways to obtain a proper education while incarcerated.
Eminent scholar on prison issues and author of The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander suggests "The young men who go to prison rather than college face a lifetime of closed doors, discrimination, and ostracism. Their plight is not what we hear about on the evening news, however, sadly, like the racial caste system that preceded it, the system of mass incarceration now seems normal and natural to most, a regrettable necessity." I agree with Dr. Alexander because what we do today will alter the course of history tomorrow. We must educate ourselves into freedom to reclaim our identity add not let prison define who we are. We must resist any form of denial to our education. We must view education as a common heritage from which no incarcerated citizen is excluded.
Educating the incarcerated citizens is a matter of public safety, because education is the best weapon to combat crime, and a quality education will deter our youth from a lifetime behind bars. Therefore, if we are to guarantee a quality education to all incarcerated citizens we need to begin viewing education as a form of liberation. We need to stop placing our freedom, justice, and equality at the mercy of others. It is my belief that the potential for greatness exists in every correctional facility across the landscape of America and only awaits discovery and development. As incarcerated citizens we must raise our voices in a way that cannot be ignored. We must stop seeing ourselves as being written off as prisoners, and begin to make demands. I repeat, prisons don't define who we are.
Luis S. Gonzales
LSD (Luis Suave) Gonzales is a Juvenile Lifer, incarcerated for over 28 years. He is a contributing artist and writer to Minutes Before Six, a graduate of Villanova University, an author of six critically acclaimed novels, the founder of the Education Over Incarceration (E.O.I.) Scholarship, a member of the United Community Action Network (U-CAN) and president of the Latin American Cultural Exchange Organization (L.A.C.E.O.) He is an artist and poet.
Click here to listen to an interview with Suave by Maria Hinojosa on NPR Radio.
Click here to view novels available on Amazon by LSD Gonzales