We’re Seriously Not Giving These Guys an Education?

Stumbling through the intertubes, I came across an extraordinary blog post by a math teacher who volunteers in San Quentin prison, near San Francisco:

Math 50 is a is a numeracy and pre-algebra course that is a prerequisite for enrollment in math courses for college credit. … San Quentin is the only prison in California that has a college program, and only some 50 of its 5000+ inmates are enrolled in Math 50. Since there is no public funding in the state for prison education beyond the GED or a high school diploma, all instructors are volunteers, and only a prison located so improbably close to a cluster of universities can staff a college program. Working with these students on Friday nights, I wonder at how little it really is they are asking for, how unnecessary it seems that the public will not afford this opportunity to anyone who would make use of it.

So… the state of California is not making pre-college education available to prison inmates. That’s fucked up, especially in the country with the highest fraction of its population in prison of any country in the world. Of course, realistically only the younger and more ambitious inmates are going to attempt college after their time is served (note the enrollment rate mentioned above.) But given that inmates already have a hard time finding work upon their release, not providing preparatory courses to those who might want them seems like a losing strategy for everyone.

The author of this post, a woman named Hanna, goes on to consider whether the denial of education would constitute “differential punishment”:

I wonder, also, whether some argument can not be made that restricting access to education at this level amounts to a kind of differential punishment above and beyond that meted out in accordance with law for whatever misdeed was committed. By analogy, suppose that a person with diabetes commits a crime and is imprisoned. If that person in addition to being confined is deprived of necessary medication and medical supervision to control his illness, that would constitute a differential punishment beyond that implied by his sentence – his punishment would in reality be different from and more severe than that given to a healthy person who had committed exactly the same crime. Can something similar be said for undereducated persons who are incarcerated? To the extent that a certain level of education is necessary in order to function outside the institution, and to the extent that learning meets fundamental human needs, I would say yes. If two people commit the same crime, and the one has a master’s in engineering and the other does not know how to distinguish adding from multiplying, then deprivation of opportunities for learning constitutes a differential punishment, a more severe consequence, for the undereducated person. Restricting access to math at a level afforded by most high schools constitutes a consequence beyond that included in the prison sentence.

Indeed. I don’t think humanity actually knows very much about how to rehabilitate criminals, so I don’t expect miracles, but surely withholding education is not a good idea.

One thought on “We’re Seriously Not Giving These Guys an Education?”

  1. Boy did you hit the head of the nail! I’ve worked with rehabilitating criminals and the thing that made them criminals in the first place is almost always failed education in the first place.

    Start in the 1st grade, kids are eager to learn! Want to be part of the big learning experience, doing well relative to all the other kids.

    Then they have a problem grasping something that the others don’t.

    The more not understanding they run into the more they fall behind. Others start making fun of them etc. At some point, which is sooner for some and later for others, they give up on that subject. The disassociation with society have begun.

    Compile enough failed subjects and the person feels they cannot be part of and contribute to society. At that point you have a criminal in the making. His only alternative is to try to operate outside our society. They start making their own society.

    Having failed school they are not very good at creating a sane society. Of course with the disassociation from society it is now them vs us.

    I have recovered gang members with a simple approach, based on the above, which is complete when they realize they can contribute to society and win at it.

    It usually starts with education because without it, as you say, it is almost impossible for them to win. The sad thing, on top of it all, is that punishment does not work. Our full prisons are evidence of that. Not even death sentences stop people. What does work is a reward system where you earn your privileges.

    Anyway, I read your article and had to acknowledge what you said.

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