May 18, 2020

The Value of Prison Education: A View from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility

Bedford Hills college student Brittney Austin explains her life changing educational journey and why we need to support college-in-prison programs.

The Value of Prison Education: A View from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility
MMC and Bedford Hills

College is meant to have a positive impact on an individual. Higher learning provides students with the skills and experiences essential to becoming productive members of society; therefore, college in prison is of great importance. Going to prison is the penalty for committing crime, but prison alone is not sufficient in transforming the incarcerated into effective members of society. In fact, prison only repositions some of the violence that plagues society. However, college is capable of reversing an individual's unfortunate circumstance. Introducing college in prison programs on a wider scale can alleviate the issue of violence within most prisons. It can also help reduce recidivism by providing prisoners with a greater chance at obtaining gainful employment. College in prison gives the incarcerated a sense of purpose that leads to positive effects. However, the greatest benefit is the moral change that occurs within an incarcerated individual as they experience higher learning.

What is the purpose of college? The college experience is supposed to have a variety of positive effects on an individual. According to Margaret Spellings, author of "The Perils of Trashing the Value of College, "college is a place that hones skills and knowledge, builds professional networks, and clarifies life's goals. It's a place where you learn to devote close attention to a hard task, to work alongside others on complex problems, to stick with a long-range challenge" (2).

If there is any accuracy to Spellings' statement on the benefits of college, then incarcerated individuals should certainly have more access to college education. All of the benefits of college has to offer can be used to gear the incarcerated toward becoming successful members of society upon re-entry. Yuki Noguchi, author of the article, "College Classes in Maximum Security: It Gives You Meaning," highlighted the benefits of college-in-prison. Noguchi quotes a woman named Joanne Page, who is the CEO of the nonprofit organization that offers job training to former incarcerates. "What college does is give you better odds...And it also gives you a skill set and sense of self that give yo better odds..." (8). The "better odds" that Noguchi quotes are the odds of economic success that being undereducated does not permit, and the skills are the elements that can outwigh those odds.

There are some individuals who are not in favor of college-in-prison. Those in opposition feel that prisoners are undeserving of the privilege to attain a college education. Daniel Karpowitz, author of the book College in Prison, documented the arguments of people against college-in-prison programs. One of Karpowitz's interviewees stated, "prison should be a place where bad people are sent to suffer for the wrong they have done to others" (2). The opinions of those against college-in-prison are neither right nor wrong; however, without college as a form of rehabilitation for prisoners, their release will perpetuate a cycle of crime. When a prisoner reenters society as undereducated as they were prior to entering the prison system, they are more likely to revert to the same actions that led to their incarceration.

Higher learning can alter unfortunate circumstances. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates documented the way education shielded him form the violent elements of his environment as a young man. In Coates' highly praised memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, he note how challenging it was to avoid succumbing to the pressures and allure of street-life. If not for the presence of education throughout Coates' life, he was liable to become a product of his violent environment, which is the case for many incarcerated individuals. In the words of Coates, "...there was a war upon us [the youth of his society] and...school was a weapon that outdid any Glock" (169)/ Although Coates was not subject to the circumstances of prison, his story is an example of how education can help the incarcerated overcome their unfortunate circumstances. Today, Ta-Nehisi Coates is a renowned author, and his success is the result of his studies and determination. As education, was a saving grace for Coates, it can have the same impact on the incarcerated.

Providing prisoners with college opportunities can initiate a process of mental clarity. Margaret Spellings suggests that college can help a person, "...clarify life goals..." (2), and establishing goals is the key to obtaining success. I asked a friend who is a student in the college program at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility what her goals were prior to attending college. Her response was, "my only goal before attending college-in-prison was to get through the day I didn't have enough self-esteem to set goals. Getting an associate's degree gave me the confidence I need to believe I can achieve any goal I establish." The clarity of goals that my friend now possesses will help her to succeed as a productive member of society. The author of Liberating Minds a Case for College in Prisons, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann said it best: "Going to college helps to instill a sense of purpose and ambition for the future" (60). College-in-prison creates a way for the incarcerated to channel a sense of purpose. Having a sense of purpose will make it easier for prisoners to establish goals that will guarantee a brighter future.

College can be an antidote to the violent atmosphere of most prisons. As it was demonstrated by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann: "Though the level of violence within prisons varies, violence is a problem throughout the federal and state prison systems, and it is regularly perpetuated by corrections officers as well as those serving time. Adam Gupnik describes viscerally how the monotony of prison is tinged with a persistent undercurrent of threat for both officers and their charges, observing that prisons are distinguished by 'a note of attenuated panic, of watchful paranoia-anxiety and boredom and fear mixed into a kind of enveloping god, covering the guards as much as the guarded' " (63).

Prison is a breeding pool for violence. A corrections officer at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility said, "I've been an officer for seventeen years, and I can honestly say that the majority of the violence that occurs in prison is the result of the inmates having too much idle time. College removes violence because it gives the inmates something positive to do and something to lose if they misbehave." Providing incarcerated individuals with access to a college education gives them a reason to abstain from violent behavior.  When individuals are presented with a valuable opportunity, it is natural for them to avoid behaviors that can risk that opportunity. Daniel Karpowitz writes that "in the face of great symbolic and material oppressiveness, these students [the incarcerated] enter college with the keenest sense of just how precious is the opportunity that lies before them" (9) - and that opportunity to them is worthy of avoiding violence. Instead of engaging in fights, drug dealing and gang activity, incarcerated individuals engage in higher learning.

If college-in-prison can change the violent perspectives of an incarcerated individual, it can do the same for the perspectives on crime. Studies indicate a connection between higher learning and lower recidivism rates. In an article entitled, "Education Opportunities in Prison Are Key to Reducing Crime," Kathleen Bender reports,"Individuals who did not complete high school were rearrested at the highest rate-60.4 percent while those who had a college degree were rearrested at a rate of 19.1 percent" (2), a statistic that verifies the link between higher learning and lower crime rates. The counter argument to this statistic is that formerly incarcerated individuals with college educations still manage to commit crimes, but are able to avoid being arrested. However, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann believes prisoners who attend college acquire compassion that compels them to contribute to society as opposed to riddle it with crime. Lagemann uses the story of a formerly incarcerated individual, Dorell Smallwood, as an example to support her claim: "In prison, Dorell decided that after her was released he wanted to work with young people so they might avoid making the same mistakes he made. With that in mind, he applied to the Bard Prison Initiative-'a place where I was fully a student, not an inmate,' he says-and was admitted. Now, with a bachelor's degree from Bard as well as a master's in professional studies from New York Theological Seminary, he is working as an advocate for young people at Brooklyn Defender services, helping others who have become involved with the criminal justice system. Going to prison enabled him to find his way out of the repeating cycles of crime and imprisonment that have dominated his father's life and the lives of many others in the neighborhoods like the one in which he came of age (88)."

College has clearly changed Dorell Smallwood's view on crime. Instead of pursuing a life of crime upon re-entry, he is helping others avoid the path he chose, and doing so while being a productive member of society. College-in-prison can yield many outcomes similar to Dorrell's. The editorial board of the New York Times, in "College Education for Prisoners," argues that "...the most effective way to keep people out of prison once they leave is to give them job skills that make them marketable employees" (1).

Individuals with higher education levels are more likely to attain greater financial success than those who do not. In "Lifetime Earnings Soar with Education," Roger Longley cites a report co-authored by Jennifer Cheeseman that explains, "At most ages more education equates with higher earning, and the payoff is most notable at the highest education levels" (1). It is better to attain financial success through gainful employment, and gainful employment opportunities are accessible to individuals with the credentials to qualify. Incarcerated college students fall into the bracket of individuals whose college education can produce higher levels of financial success. They will re-enter society with the credentials that offer better job opportunities. In addition, there are laws in place to assure that formerly incarcerated individuals get their fair share at gainful employment. Yuki Noguchi explains, "More that 150 cities and countries have laws preventing employers from asking about prior convictions in initial job screenings" (5). These protection laws also heighten the odds of success for post-release individuals who possess a college education.

Many people enter the prison system with a broken perspective of the world, just as I did. The penal system accused me of murder in the second degree, convicted me of robbery in the first degree, and then I was sent to serve a sentence of 14 years at Bedford Hills Correction Facility. Prior to my conviction, I was nothing but a product of my environment. Born in a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, to a poor family, I was overexposed to the violence of my environment as a child: drugs, guns, rape, addiction, gang violence. The negative elements of my neighborhood are what molded me into a criminal.

I joined a gang at the age of fifteen. Fellow gang members introduced me to a life of fast money that included prostitution, robbery, and drug dealing. When one is involved in such violent activity, they are required to lack empathy. My mind was in a constant negative state. Therefore, it was impossible for me to find the compassion needed to prevent my actions. I did not have the ability to acknowledge the effects my criminal activity had on various individuals, which is the main reason I lived a life of crime for so long. Living the life of a criminal diminished morals and values; I committed crimes without caring about who got hurt in the process.

I resorted to criminal activity because I did not believe in my ability to be anything but a criminal. Although I was not a poor student in high school, I dropped out at the age of sixteen. My mother, who was my main support, had passed away the previous year. She was the person who inspired me to succeed in school and avoid violence, so when she died I lost that inspiration. My reason for leaving high school was the lack of support I needed to defeat the challenges associated with my violent environment. My teachers were not dedicated enough to care about the fact that violence and gang activity was devouring my potential to become someone great. The staff at my high school was well aware of my gang affiliation and the way it related to my academic failure, but they refused to intervene. I could not see the point in trying to succeed when no one cared. As I continued to fail in school, I began to feel worthless. I felt like I could never amount to anything because of where I came from.

Sadly, I went on in this state of mind for years. The more I thought I was worthless the more I committed crimes. When I came to prison and entered college, my negative thought process transformed. College gave me the sense of purpose that I previously mentioned. Being able to succeed elevated my self-esteem and made me feel worthy of success. Now I have dreams and goals, and I believe that no circumstances can hinder my goals.

When I am released from prison, I want to open a chain of bakeries that only employs formerly incarcerated individuals. My business would assure that some formerly incarcerated individuals would have a chance at gainful employment, which would keep them out of prison. I am confident that when I re-enter society, I will become a productive member. College has given me an understanding of right and wrong that I did not have to prior to attending. I no longer desire the life of crime that was detrimental to my victims. I would like to give back to my community just as Dorell Smallwood has.

College-in-prison can shape an individual's moral perspective in a positive way, as it has done for me and many other incarcerated individuals. Being a productive member of society requires one to have the morals and ambition that lead to success. This is the overall reason why incarcerated individuals need more access to college-in-prison programs.

Brittney Austin is a student at MMC's Bedford Hills program. This essay won the Writing Program Award during the MMC's 2020 Honors Day.