Written by Kaia Tombak
Some names in this blog post have been changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned.
Jack greeted me cheerfully as he strolled into class, asking me how things are going.
“I’m fine, thanks,” I replied. “How are you?”
“Oh, I’m good,” he chuckled. “You know, given the circumstances!”
We were sitting in a men’s maximum security prison in New Jersey with nine others settling down for a lesson in environmental sciences. Through the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) program and the Prison Teaching Initiative (PTI) at Princeton University, I was one of five teachers at the prison that night. The others were teaching classes on algebra, history, psychology, and the biology of woody plants.
Education programs within prisons in the U.S. are widespread but underfunded and they depend heavily on volunteer teachers and organizers. A student in my class today asked me to write to an NJ-STEP representative to push for a fundraising campaign to make the organization self-reliant. He was worried because the program has dealt with pushback from the public by those who argue that prisoners should not receive a free education on the taxpayer’s dime while others must go into debt for one. By the time you’ve finished reading this, I hope that you’ll agree that prison education programs should receive more public funding, not less, for both social justice and economic reasons, and that the U.S. should save taxpayers’ money by phasing out its unsustainable mass incarceration system.
“Tough on crime” really means “tough on the marginalized”
The U.S. used to be on par with European countries in its rate of incarceration. Between 1930 and 1970, the rate of imprisonment in the U.S. held steady at about 110 in 100,000 residents. This was comparable to rates in Europe, which have remained stable and low (e.g. Germany imprisons 93 in 100,000 residents, Turkey imprisons 112, and Denmark 67). Beginning in Nixon’s second term in the 1970’s, however, the prison population in the U.S. exploded, and now stands at 750 incarcerated people for every 100,000 residents (for the sociopolitical history behind this see this article in The Atlantic). The concurrent increase in the number of blacks imprisoned, the number of privately owned prisons, and the virtually free labor their inmates provide them has prompted some to equate this with the reinstatement of a form of racial segregation, and of slavery.
“Doubling the conviction rate in this country would do far more to cure crime in America than quadrupling the funds for [the] War on Poverty.”
– Richard Nixon, TIME Magazine 1968
Nixon was wrong. Crime rates peaked in 1991, and only after that did they fall precipitously. While incarceration rates continued to climb afterward, the contribution that mass incarceration may have made to the decline in crime rates is estimated to be as low as 5%, with diminishing effects the further incarceration rates escalated. Moreover, crime has continued to decline in states that have recently cut back dramatically on incarceration rates.
Meanwhile, the excessive tough-on-crime policies Nixon adopted have resulted in unjust restrictions on the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for a huge portion of America’s citizens and have increased poverty in the country as a whole. Most incarcerated men contributed significantly to their household incomes prior to institutionalization, and the incarcerated population is drawn mostly from families that already have a low income. In poor neighborhoods, entire communities have lost a significant portion of their local economies to mass incarceration.
The costs of mass incarceration are not borne solely by incarcerated Americans and their families. Most of America’s incarcerated people are in state prisons. At an average annual cost of roughly $31,000 per inmate in state prisons, taxpayers are taking a major hit as a result of mass incarceration. Over the past couple of decades, correctional costs have been the second-fastest growing budget item at the state level after Medicaid. If the U.S. released half of its imprisoned that have been incarcerated for non-violent crimes, taxpayers would save $16.9 billion a year, a figure roughly equivalent to the GDP of Estonia.
The trauma of disadvantage
For many, including myself, it is difficult to understand the effects of growing up within a low-socioeconomic status (SES) household and/or with systemic racism without experiencing it firsthand. This cartoon summarizes some of those struggles, and this man’s story chronicles the anxiety of living under constant suspicion and racial profiling as an urban black man.
The effect of intersecting disadvantages is greater than the sum of its parts. Due to factors like discriminatory zoning policies that imposed segregation across race and class in American cities, many people in prison are from poor neighborhoods. In these communities, public schools are more likely to be overcrowded and underfunded, with low graduation rates and limited post-graduation opportunities. Some turn to illegal business to get out of this situation, and may become examples to youth of those who appear to have ‘made it’. Many do not, yet to be black or Hispanic in many American cities includes growing up under constant vigilance — from police officers to shopkeepers. Superfluous identity checks, pat-downs and arrests for innocuous offenses or actions that are not even offenses (e.g., eating French fries on a subway, sitting in a car in your aunt’s driveway, or video-recording an arrest), are not uncommon.
In a country that incarcerates more people than any other on the planet and about a third of its black men and a sixth of its Hispanic men (New Jersey is among the five worst states in this regard, with a black:white ratio of 12.5 to 1 and a Hispanic:white ratio of 3 to 1 in its prisons), it doesn’t take much imagination to understand how badly the odds are stacked against them. Many of the roughly 2 million incarcerated people in the U.S. don’t have to imagine it — they’ve lived it.
“. . . over the last few decades, I think many in the African-American community have been seduced by the argument that, well, this is all our fault. Somehow we’ve brought mass incarceration upon ourselves. If only we would pull up our pants or stay in school or not experiment with drugs, if only somehow we could be perfect and never make a mistake, that none of this would be happening. But, of course . . . young white kids who make mistakes, commit misdemeanors and jaywalking and smoke weed, they are able to go off to college if they’re middle-class. But if you’re poor or you live in the hood, the kinds of mistakes that people of all colors and classes make actually cost them their lives. And yet, then we turn around and blame them and say, ‘This is all your fault’.”
– Michelle Alexander, Democracy Now!
On the way home, the other teachers and I stop for some dinner and share stories of our experiences. Although all of us have to be careful with the way we phrase certain things in class, those teaching psychology have to be extra sensitive.
“Today’s class was on childhood development. The section about theories on how early childhood experiences can affect one’s life trajectory,” explained Nicky. “That was sort of tricky to talk about. Some students would bring up their own past experiences, and some wondered what was going to happen to their children while they were away for so long.” The teachers didn’t have definite answers for them, emphasizing that there was still so much that was not known about the brain.
We do know, however, that the psychological effects of negative stereotypes, many of which our students grew up with, can be pervasive and affect performance in school or at work. A famous study by Steele and Aronson showed that black students performed as well as white students on an aptitude test, except when told that the test was meant to diagnose their intelligence. The researchers ascribed this psychological effect to the feeling of being at risk of fulfilling stereotypes associated with one’s group, which they termed ‘stereotype threat’. The same phenomenon has been shown in women, Hispanics, people of low SES, and even in white men when told they were being tested on a math test against Asian men [1–3].
Part of our task as teachers in prisons has become, at times unconsciously, to reverse the effects of what is often a lifelong belief that one is not intelligent, good at various school subjects, or deserving of a good education. The students’ reactions to our efforts have been rewarding but heart-breaking; even the slightest bit of encouragement from us is met with gratitude, and they repeatedly express how much they love to be able to come to our classes. For many of them, class time is an important psychological break from being insulated from the outside world and a sign that it has not forgotten them.
Releasing birds with clipped wings
Pushing for social change for a more equitable American society is the main task at hand, but it will take time. Meanwhile, over 600,000 people are released from prison every year. Many of them have nowhere to go and end up in shelters or on the streets. They are expected to integrate into society and make an honest living despite years of missed opportunities and despite having to inform potential employers that they have been incarcerated (they have to check ‘the box’, an enormous impediment to success in the employment race). These are not trivial hurdles for someone who has lived in an insular world and must now relearn a different lifestyle, operate new technologies, and catch up with the outside world that has surged ahead full-throttle without them. This New York Times article describes the shell shock of being released after many years in prison, and how some non-profit organizations are working to ease the process. Many of these discharged men and women (about 68%) are rearrested within two years following release, a shocking proportion only until one realizes that they are usually worse off than they were before their original incarceration.
Most federal and state prisons do offer some form of high school or college-level education, but only about 2% of the inmates in a given institution can participate in these programs because capacity is so limited. A provision of the 1994 Crime Act severely diminished these opportunities by discontinuing eligibility for Pell grants for the incarcerated. Judicial scholars have been recommending the reinstatement of this eligibility ever since (e.g. refs 4–5). The costs of doing so would be modest: $34 million or 0.1% of the $53 billion grant fund was granted to prisoners in 1994. This investment pays for itself and then some, with vocational education in prisons returning, on average, about five times the investment in benefits to taxpayers through crime reduction alone. Not to mention reductions in recidivism by roughly one-half in formerly incarcerated people that participate in prison education programs, and further reductions in those that successfully complete courses while in prison.
From baby steps to leaps and bounds
“You should see how hard-working and disciplined my students are,” Katie told the rest of us. “One of them has a strict schedule of work, exercise, and studying. He’s preparing for having to juggle work and study when he goes to Rutgers next year after his release!” We all gushed and the conversation turned to the recent news about how a Bard Prison Initiative prison debate team beat a Harvard debate team.
To respect our students’ privacy and to ensure that we can teach them without prejudice, we generally aren’t aware of what our students are there for or for how long. However, with little tidbits that our students have offered us, we’ve gathered that some of them are in class to prepare for work or further education after being released, and that others are there despite having little hope of being released for a very long time. This dynamic makes the class a joy to teach and interact with because they are all there voluntarily, they are highly motivated, and many are there just to learn for the sake of learning. Regardless of their particular situations, the opportunity to take courses in prison represents a sliver of hope for building themselves up to a better future.
A recent turn of events has brought more hope for the imprisoned: in July 2015, the Departments of Education and Justice announced that eligibility for Pell grants in support of pursuing post-secondary education and training for incarcerated Americans has been re-established through the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. This announcement came with more welcome news, including steps being taken by the Federal Government to join the rising number of businesses and institutions that are “banning the box” on job applications (at least for the initial candidate screening), new funding to address homelessness and reduce recidivism in people released from prisons, and improving opportunities for children with incarcerated parents.
These are great first steps, but as long as prison education is not a standard option offered to most imprisoned Americans, many will still be released without having had opportunities to improve their chances of integration. Even with the current policy improvements, prison teaching programs will remain highly limited in capacity and dependent on volunteerism and donations. Most imprisoned Americans will still never get to study in a prison classroom, despite the supposed reformative purpose of prisons and the opportunities within them to close the education gap in the U.S. (39% of the incarcerated are below the literacy line, compared to 20% in the population as a whole). There is no quick fix for a voracious carceral system that has run on overdrive for four decades and a social system that has never been equitable, but there are big things that can be done now. It is essential to pull people out of the prison cycle by funding prison education; we cannot afford to abandon those who have been failed by this society. The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program will help, but reallocating resources to make education programs a standard resource for people in prisons would convert this baby step to a great leap forward.
This is what it comes down to: mass incarceration is expensive to taxpayers and contributes to the cycle of poverty, but releasing people from prison without improving their chances at integration often lands them back into prison. Offering incarcerated Americans opportunities to build themselves up through prison education programs pays for itself through reductions in crime and recidivism and gives them hope for the future. Empowering the casualties of a dysfunctional system through these training programs is therefore not only just, but is also good social and economic policy. Taxpayers can afford to give more of America’s imprisoned a ‘second chance’, especially considering that most did not have a fair first chance to begin with.
They Teach Us
On the next Tuesday at the prison, another small group assembled behind the teachers in the lobby, waiting to be let in.
“Are you teachers as well?” I asked.
“No, they teach us,” replied the man with a smile.
He was with an Alcoholics Anonymous group that meets with imprisoned alcoholics for group therapy sessions. Like him, it didn’t take very many classes for me to realize how much I was learning from my students. My initial preconceptions and prejudices about what it might be like to teach in a maximum security prison were whittled away and I was impressed at the depth of knowledge several of them had on important environmental issues. They were very hard-working and keen students — among the best I have ever taught. By the second class, teaching in prison had become the highlight of my week. It was my opportunity to climb out of the ivory tower and do something. An opportunity to understand a world that is tucked away in large buildings in the forgotten corners of America, where 2 million Americans live, yet from which many of us are completely disconnected.
If you are a member of the Princeton community, sign the Students for Prison Education And Reform (SPEAR) petition for our admissions system to abolish ‘the box’ here.
If you would like to contribute to Princeton’s Prison Teaching Initiative (PTI), whether through volunteering or donations, please contact Sandra Sussman.
ssussman [at] princeton.edu
Some of the other teachers shared end-of-semester student feedback with me for this article:
“Thank you so much for taking the time to teach us. You are greatly appreciated!”
“I really appreciate all of the professors and the opportunity to learn about the natural world. It is AWESOME!”
“I will never look at trees and plants in the same way again. I am glad I took this class.”
“Thank you for your time and volunteering to teach us. Prior to this section we had no idea you all did this on your own time. I thank you all and appreciate the gift of education.”
Kaia Tombak is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. She studies social organization in gregarious animals and ecological networks in East Africa.
 Aronson J, Lustina MJ, Good C, Keough K, Steele CM, and Brown J. 1999. When white men can’t do math: necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 35: 29–46.
 Schmader T, Johns M. 2003. Converging evidence that stereotype threat reduces working memory capacity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 85: 440–452.
 Croizet J-C, Claire T. 1998. Extending the concept of stereotype threat to social class: the intellectual underperformance of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 24: 588–594.
 Karpowitz D, Kenner M. 2001. Education as crime prevention: the case for reinstating Pell Grant eligibility for the incarcerated. New York, http://www.bard.edu/bpi/images/crime_report.pdf
 Tewksbury R, Erickson DJ, Taylor JM. 2000. Opportunities lost: The consequences of eliminating Pell Grant eligibility for correctional education students. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 31: 43–56.