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The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Education as an Inmate

The reverberation of the school-to-prison pipeline neither ceases nor subsides when  a former student becomes an inmate. The educational system within the prison system continues to fail them by not providing educational opportunities that are truly geared toward rehabilitation or reducing recidivism.

For example, Master’s degrees are offered to inmates from the New York Theological Seminary. The viability of such a degree in the outside world for a convicted felon raises a lot of questions for me. How will this degree help a former inmate get a job? How many inmates who have completed this coursework and earned this degree have used it to successfully reintegrate him/herself into the workforce?  I’m not a college advisor or career counselor but, as an alternative, I think a degree or certification in drug abuse counseling may prove to be more useful in helping former inmates gain sustainable paid employment upon release from prison and re-entry into society.

According to my husband John, an inmate at a New York State correctional facility, at least 90% of prisoners enter prison without a GED. Obtaining one’s GED has recently become a mandatory requirement for all inmates; however, the prison does not have enough classrooms or teachers to provide this service.

A 2014 U.S. National Research Council report, substantiates John’s account:

Many people enter prison with educational deficits and could benefit from education while incarcerated. Literacy rates among prisoners generally are low, and substantially lower than in the general population…. Over the past 40 years, the percentage of prisoners having completed high school at the time of their incarceration fluctuated between about one-quarter and more than one-third for state prison inmates, with higher rates for those housed in federal facilities.

When John first entered prison, his high school diploma was considered a big deal. In reality, that is the bare minimum for any job prospects. Very rarely, but sometimes, men come to prison with college credits. Also, there is a huge population of English Language Learners in prison who get absolutely no educational services because of the language barrier.

This reality contradicts the NYS Department of Corrections’ professed objective on its website as being “…the same as those for the regular, formal education programs and may include: literacy, high school equivalency diploma, English fluency, or college correspondence courses.”

Prison vocational programs yield certificates that are meaningless when seeking jobs on the outside. There are no legitimate apprenticeships or certificates offered. Inmates don’t even have a choice in the trade in which they get trained. Some of the offerings include small engines (repairing lawn mowers, etc), carpentry, and custodial maintenance. Most inmates are “conveniently” assigned to custodial maintenance which equates to modern-day slave labor or share-cropping. Inmates clean the entire prison from sunup to sundown for $.24 per hour. That equates to $10-$15 earned every two weeks. This can buy next to nothing in commissary, as the prices of products sold in commissary are just as expensive as products we buy at Walgreen’s or CVS.

There used to be an accounting course offered that taught inmates how to word process, prepare taxes, etc., but that ended years ago. John was actually taking and enjoying that class, but was abruptly reassigned to a carpentry program. Currently, John is enrolled in the Behavioral Sciences Associates/Bachelor degree program of study that is offered through Mercy College via Hudson Link. Last semester in his English Literature class, John read texts by Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin, as well as numerous current events articles. His assignments included writing argumentative essays about whether or not prisoners should receive higher education while incarcerated and whether or not the food offered in prison is healthy.

We  need to look at what happens when we either don’t educate or under-educate entire segments of our society, what happens when literally millions of adults are functional illiterates who lack the basic skills needed to perform jobs, and what happens when a huge cross-section of our society, even with skills and education, are ostracized from the work force because of their past criminal activity. Where does that leave them? Better still, where does that leave us?

What do you think?

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