Education Permits Growth During Long Prison Sentence and Makes Us Free

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Diver floats through a hole in net.


Students in the English Literature and Composition Foundations course, offered by the Second Chance Educational Alliance, Inc. in Connecticut, were given the opportunity to draft an opinion piece about the merits of providing higher education opportunities to incarcerated people with lengthy sentences.

With the merits of higher education in prison so firmly rooted in return on investment (ROI) models, it made sense for students in a maximum-security prison to explain how they felt about the current direction of research.

This piece has two authors; one is serving a 70-year sentence and the other is serving a 40-year sentence. Both are African-American men in their late 20s who continue to enroll in all available postsecondary programming offered at their facility. For the purposes of anonymity and consideration of victims’ rights, their names cannot be made public, but this is, in its entirety, their work. Minor edits have been made for continuity and the length of the column.

—Erin Corbett

Erin Corbett

Dehumanized and written off as throwaways not worth the investment, incarcerated individuals with lengthy sentences are routinely denied access to higher education opportunities. The dominant rhetoric of higher education programs in prison has focused primarily on recidivism; what the rhetoric ignores, however, is what is, essentially, the ideological foundation undergirding our nation’s belief about the transformative power of knowledge.

Active learning cultivates critical thinking and analytical skills, skills tied to positive life outcomes. As such, if education is considered one of the most important indicators of future success for Americans who are free, then the same can be said for Americans who are incarcerated and, as a society, we must be deliberate about providing educational outlets to all who want and need the opportunity for growth and rehabilitation.

As young men sentenced in our 20s to multiple decades, we represent different worldviews but we agree that in a correctional facility we are not given the opportunity to “correct” ourselves. Education has a way of cultivating the introspective awareness needed to navigate everyday life. Without education you perpetuate a stagnant environment; one can magnify this stagnation 100 times when conceptualizing time in prison. This stagnation leads to the acceptance of, and complacency with, conditioned and unchanged responses, negatively impacting the process of rehabilitation.

The positive ripple effect related to educating those who are incarcerated must also be considered. Students engaged in educational programs are less likely to engage in problematic behavior within the prison. This equates to fewer facility assaults and less indulgence in institutionally prohibited activities. Making prisons safe for all individuals should be at the forefront of all decisions. If there are programs providing education to inmates, and those programs increase the safety and security of the facility, then those programs should be offered; it is beneficial, in our opinion, for both inmate and correctional facility to create more scholars within this system. Enlightened individuals are assets in free society and prison society.

You see, prison culture does not call for growth and without that calling there is no need or desire to change oneself or one’s behavior. Education challenges and rewards at levels commensurate with effort and dedication. The hard-working student begins to cultivate a sense of confidence, accomplishment and self-worth, culminating with personal fulfillment, self-actualization. The classroom provides incarcerated individuals with a canvas to express themselves in ways that might be unacceptable on the block. Safe from the conditioned behaviors and responses of the stagnant environment that is the cell block, he is free, and his potential is limitless.

As a society we must rid ourselves of the notion that incarcerated people are less human. We must consider our forgotten brothers and sisters as those who need our help in education the most. The longer the sentence, the more work that needs to be done to illuminate a new path for our misguided friend. The mindset of us all must be geared toward the betterment of the whole. So please let us no longer hide the gift of education. Let there be learning where it is needed most. The potential is limitless.

Erin Corbett is chief executive officer of Second Chance Educational Alliance and senior research analyst of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. With more than two decades in education access, her commitment to expanding postsecondary opportunities for all populations has served as the foundation of her professional endeavors.

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