Looking Back: Restoring Quality Education to Prisoners Makes Sense

Jeffrey Deskovic speaking in Davis last year at the Annual Vanguard Event

“Looking back” will feature reprints of articles that Jeff previously wrote while a columnist at The Westchester Guardian, which encompass topics that are applicable here in CA as well as across the country and not simply applicable to NY.

By Jeffrey Deskovic

College In Prison

Having college education available to prisoners was one of the best ideas ever to be put into practice in terms of rehabilitation. It was truly a case of a win-win scenario. Firstly, the recidivism rate of those who had a college education was significantly lower than those who had not received one. The reason for that is obvious: It was equipping prisoners with the education that they needed in order to be gainfully employed. It was also deepening their level of thinking, showing them alternatives to crime, thus making it less likely that they would return to crime.

It made robberies, burglaries and drug dealing less likely, dramatically reducing the number of future victims and the $40,000/yr. cost of reincarceration. Thus, far from coddling criminals, college education was a powerful crime- prevention program. It also provided the Parole Board with a good indicator as to which prisoners were committed to rehabilitation. After all, the road to a college degree was both long and arduous. Only the truly committed would embark upon a journey which would take two years to get an Associates Degree, and four years to a B.A.

The participating colleges also benefited. Some professors even brought their students into the facility for a joint class in which both students behind the prison wall and those who were free were able to conduct dialogue, and enjoy an educational experience. Many teachers expressed their great personal satisfaction from teaching in prison, and often remarked that the students in prison frequently asked the most questions, indicating they were really getting into the material and thinking about it.

My Personal Experience, and What I Witnessed

Back in 1993, I was still wrongfully incarcerated. Having obtained my GED a year prior to that, I decided to avail myself of the college program. My thinking is that I wanted to learn all that I could while I was there, so as to not make my time in prison a total waste. I figured that by obtaining a college degree I could be that much further ahead when I was released, as opposed to starting college from scratch. I was able, to a certain extent, to leave the prison mentality for a few hours. Al- though this self-delusion did not work all the time and had varying degrees of success, it was better than nothing.

College opened up new worlds to me, broadening my horizons. In a very real sense I learned how to really think. I picked up the trait of posing questions to myself and really digging deeply for the answers. I learned to think critically. I began to read, opening up my mind. What’s more, I saw that schooling had a similar effect on the other inmates. I could see how their thinking changed by the way they talked and acted.

Many inmates went from talking about running the streets, selling drugs, and street life, to discussing school work and hopes for future careers once released and armed with a degree.

We occupied a cell block which was set aside specifically to house those who were in college. This eliminated a lot of the normal noise attendant in the prison, such as blasting radios, and yelling out of the cell bars, because many were studying, and because everyone had respect for their fellow students. Several of the normal prison dynamics were altered to some extent. For example, people who normally would not talk to each other would debate viewpoints in the classroom, and would also help tutor each other. The need to guard oneself was relaxed as learning became the primary concern rather than survival. One still had to be alert, but it was much less pronounced.

I cannot forget the mindset of some of the prisoners that I had talked to, who had not gone to college, but who had expressed to me that they felt no hope they could be able to support themselves and/or their kids, through a lawful job. After all, as they put it, “I have no education. What can I do? Who is going to give me a job which pays me good money?” But, when I saw some of those very same people in college, their attitude had totally changed. The civilian college personnel served as exemplars, just by coming to and from work. Many saw them and vocalized the idea that “If he can make it, so can I”- meaning make ends meet by having a career that didn’t involve crime, while remaining free.

Others spoke of careers that they hoped to have upon release. In many instances, it involved diverting people, in one way or another, from going to prison. I was happy for them. For many of those who had come from tragic backgrounds, with such conditions as one or more parents either on drugs or selling drugs, in prison, who had dropped out of school and were running the streets, and in many instances from broken homes, that was all they knew. For them to reach beyond that and see a productive, crime-free future was tremendous, and I vicariously, silently celebrated for them.

I personally did not need the college education in order to be able to lead a crime-free life. I was innocent, and had not committed a crime in the first place. But I knew that acquiring the education that I did would prove helpful if and when I were cleared.

Now that I am cleared, I am not as far off from graduating as I would have been if college had not been available to me. I was able to acquire 90 credits while incarcerated.

One of the ways that it has helped me is that I am able to speak and write about things that I have personally experienced and witnessed, and, I can advocate for changes, in a much more articulate way than I could otherwise.

Negative Consequences of College Removal

As I have mentioned in previous articles, when George Pataki became governor in 1995, he cut the funding for college in prison, and as a result of that the colleges left. There were many bad effects from this. It left prisoners, such as myself, who had completed some college, unable to graduate. In addition, it really killed the motivation of many students to do their best in the classes that they were already enrolled in. Also, the level of prison violence steadily rose. An idle mind, as the saying goes, is the devil’s playground. The greater the level of education, the more clearly consequences of actions could be seen, as could alternative ways of dealing with things other than violently. The correction officers felt that those prisoners that were in college or were college-educated were more manageable, because the prisoners did not want to get into trouble which would result in missing the college semester. Prisoners could not see where they really had a lot to lose in the short term. The positive environment, in which the prisoners were tutoring and encouraging each other to do well in school, was lost. The prisoners who were formerly housed in the same cell block, were now dispersed, so there were fewer positive people to be around.

Upgrading the Vocational Shops

There are basic vocational classes offered in prison, on a variety of different topics. Some of the classes include plumbing, carpentry, food service, welding, and general business. The underlying reasoning is that, just as in society, not everybody will want to go to college, and will instead prefer to learn a trade; therefore training is offered to equip prisoners with the skills that they need to get a job upon release so that they have a way to earn a living without returning to crime. To be sure, these are good topics. However, when it comes down to taking the classes themselves, there are a number of problems which render them ineffective.

Firstly, the class materials are outdated. People are taught the basics of how things used to be done years earlier. This has the effect of being useless to the prisoners once they are released and attempt to enter the workforce. For example, I completed 6 certificates in plumbing; however almost none of my training pertained to PVC pipe, which is the type of piping used today, and only a little bit about copper pipe. Instead, most of it was about metal pipe, which is not used anymore. Therefore, my “training” is useless to me out here.

If I attempted to get a job as a plumber, I would have to start at the exact same place that someone else would who had not received any training at all. Therefore, the curriculum in all of the vocational shops should be updated to reflect the latest ways and means in the various trades, and the necessary up- to-date equipment should be provided.

Secondly, the instructors them- selves are, in general, not very much into what they are teaching. Their attitude by and large is that they are only there to get a paycheck, and they do very little teaching. It is not uncommon for them to come to work, and sit in their office in the shop the entire day, and maybe answer a few questions, and other than that actually do no teaching. We should only hire and keep employed those instructors who really want to do the job they are hired to do: instruct the prisoners. In addition, to ensure that learning is taking place in the shops, there should be oversight of the instructors. Lastly, prisoners should be tested monthly to ensure that they are doing their part as well to learn.

Thirdly, there are people in some vocational classes who are only in the class because they were forced into it by the committee who assigns the assignments. Since they are not interested in learning the material, they are sometimes disruptive and a distraction to others in the class. The practice of forcing prisoners into vocational shops should end, particularly when it is considered that there are waiting lists of prisoners waiting to be assigned to vocational classes. Instead, something else should be found for them to do, rather than have them take up space in a class which someone else who wants to learn could occupy.

Fourthly, many vocational classes have become too prison-oriented- meaning all that the instructors and prison administration care about is whether the prisoners are able to do tasks that the prison needs to run, rather than focusing on skills needed on the outside. For example, a food service certificate is awarded to those who are working in the kitchen and mess hall. But instead of teaching the prisoners how to prepare meals, “cooks” merely take food which has been prepared in another facility and reheat it. Does that sound as though that would give them training on how to work as a short order cook, or in a restaurant? As another example, there was a program which was designed to teach prisoners how to clean various surfaces like one might if he was working at a cleaning agency. But instead of teaching how to clean a lot of different services, in everyday practice it was limited to just those surfaces found in the prison, with “projects” consisting of making areas of the prison shiny so that when the Albany big wigs showed up, it would appear as though cleanliness standards were being met, although after they left everything would go back to business as usual.

Fifthly, in a process began under the Pataki administration, some vocational shops began to be phased out through attrition. Classes such as typing and masonry simply ceased to be offered. When an instructor would retire or die, the class would close and not be offered anymore, thereby not only preventing others from receiving the training, but also leaving those who had already invested time and effort in the class learning some things, dangling in the wind, unable to complete the class, thus wasting their time and taxpayers money.

Conclusion

Providing quality education to prisoners is an example of a win-win situation for everybody. It provides the prisoners with hope for a crime free future by equipping them with skills needed to get a non-dead-end job through which they can support themselves, kids, and spouses without a return to crime. Secondly, by reducing the temptation to return to crime, it prevents further victimization. Thirdly, it saves taxpayers money: instead of having to pay $40,000 a year to incarcerate a prisoner, the former prisoner instead pays taxes. Fourthly, it sets the stage for some educated minds to return to our society and add to it.

Therefore quality education in prison should be seen as a powerful crime prevention tool. Accordingly, college education should be returned to prison as an investment in society, and the vocational classes should be overhauled to contain up-to-date curriculum taught by instructors who are motivated, who are overseen, to prisoners who want to receive the training. Vocations that were no longer offered should be reintroduced. After all, if a former prisoner was living next to you, wouldn’t you want him or her to have all the skills they possibly could to ensure that they could get a job, or would you want them there with minimal skills, thus making it likely that they will return to crime? We should ask ourselves which would be the safer scenario?

“Jeffrey Deskovic, JD, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 7 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.


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About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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