Education Inside Prison, Part One

Honors Students Working to Transform Education Access

Education Inside Prison 1

Written by Kathleen Edelheit and the students of Honors 230A (inside and out.)

Kathleen Edelheit is majoring in Anthropology and will graduate this Fall. She plans on attending law school with a focus on Public Interest and Poverty Law.

"What is the worth of higher education? What is its purpose? Who should pay for it? What should it include?" These are the questions Dashni asked in one of her essays for Honors 230A, "In Your Name: Education Inside Prison," a course offered during summer session 2013. They are reasonable questions for any university student to ponder, but Dashni and her twenty classmates were engaging in these debates in an unexpected setting: prison. The course, developed by Claudia Jensen, met weekly at the Twin Rivers Unit (TRU), a medium security facility at the Monroe Correctional Complex, a state prison less than an hour from the UW campus. The class was made up of UW Honors students and inmates at Twin Rivers.

"It's valuable to learn about the corners of society we often don't think about, and it's even more valuable to care about those corners of society we often shut out from our hearts." (Dana)

The unifying thread of our class was education: how and why this is crucial in a prison setting. As Reina wrote: "... the TRU students were some of the most passionate and well spoken people, eager to learn and to hold discussions regarding class readings or political aspects of educational programs in prisons." "I never thought I had a chance to accomplish anything in the educational world," wrote Aleksandr. "I believe that this class will help me stay excited and motivated about my own education." As Jinsung wrote, the influence went in both directions: "I'm sure that the prisoners will write about their own benefits from the class. I suspect that they will mention that interacting with students from outside of prison was a positive outcome of the class in itself, but the same goes for me. Reading about education in prisons would have been an interesting class, but actually interacting with inmates and having a conversation with many different personalities in prison validated the readings."

All of the students wrote eloquently about their own desires for education, eager to participate and learn even if this was not something that was part of their upbringing. As Aleksandr wrote: "Education was never a part of my life, not even talking about my opinions. I got a taste of education; it is important as it makes us who we are." Michael shared similar sentiments: "I never thought about college until taking this four week class. I hope I can help change the way society thinks about people in prison getting an education."

Studying the problems of providing and paying for education within the prison system also revealed the complexities of simple labels and approaches. "There is no downside to pursuing a liberal arts degree, especially for the inmates at TRU," wrote Michael. "It allows us to better ourselves, have a greater sense of self worth, and provides a broader view of society." Derek wrote passionately about the need for liberal arts education in prison, in addition to vocational classes: "Education is the key to unlocking human potential, but only when it teaches one to think for oneself... There is value in vocational education, but it is an incomplete solution. The emergence of leadership effects real change within a community. By developing the positive leaders where they are needed most and empowering them through academic education, I believe a real and lasting difference can be made." David, however, put the issue in stark terms: "...since the majority of inmates can't pay for their own educations, that places the cost of liberal arts classes on the society that has been victimized by the incarcerated. While it is very altruistic to ignore this and noble in part, to at least some degree [for example], a rape victim would be paying for her rapist's education."

"The proper tools and education for inmates can help to steer them in a direction that they hadn't thought possible." (Marvin)

We spent a lot of time talking about how education inside prison is paid for, and we heard many different opinions. "I feel that inmates should be able to get an education, but we should have to pay just like students on the outside. I did not realize that the general public thinks that inmates get everything for free. Nothing is free," wrote Myhkel, who created a loan/repayment contract that would benefit both inmates and the DOC. Andy reinforced these assumptions: "Like many free citizens, I had the mindset of 'they deserve nothing in prison—they need to be punished.' I was utterly blown away when I learned that these inmates worked for everything they had. They pay for their own shoes, phone calls, television, toothpaste, etc. What was even more mind-boggling was that they survive on a wage of 42 cents an hour, making no more than $55 a month. No wonder the majority of inmates don't seek a college degree; it just isn't a viable option for them."

Emma, in her writings, thought about the larger implications of devoting taxpayer money for education inside prison: "Education inside prison should be offered; it is in the best interest of all society to do so... However, I believe prison education is a Band-Aid for much bigger issues that we face in America today. I think that the men I have met while visiting TRU were failed by the American education system long before they became criminals." Lily wrote about her new awareness of these same complexities: "Prior to signing up for the class, I believed that there should be education offered everywhere for everyone, no matter what. My opinion has not necessarily changed now that I have spent time learning about prison, but I am now aware that there is an opposing argument. It never really occurred to me that people might not want to spend their taxpayer dollars paying for inmates to get an education while they are struggling to pay for their own child's education."