Does Mandatory Education Help Prisoners Prepare For Release?

By · Thursday, November 27th, 2008

In federal prison, those inmates who cannot offer verification that they have earned a high school diploma or high school equivalency are required to attend classes. A staff member assigned to the education department oversees a cadre of inmate tutors who assist those who are mandated to attend. Prisoners who lack high school equivalency and refuse to participate in the class suffer severe penalties. They earn lower wages on prison jobs, and more importantly, they forfeit good time that they could otherwise receive. Consequently, those who refuse to participate in the mandatory education programs serve longer terms in prison.

I feel convinced that the more a prisoner works to educate himself, the more he prepares for success upon release. Yet my observation: and experiences simultaneously convince me that mandatory education programs lack the effectiveness of voluntary educational programs. Administrators should think more creatively about steps they may take to induce inmates to make self-improvement commitments.

When prisoners feel mandated to attend classes, they resist and rebel. Many of the prisoners struggle with release dates that stretch years or decades into the future. They feel lost in prison, as they sink into a kind of hopelessness. Such prisoners feel the pains of separation from family and community. They may feel threatened by the prison environment. Those types of complications interfere with their peace of mind, and when that happens, they lack the focus to advance through lessons on algebra or geometry.

Prisoners who are forced to participate in educational programs under the penalty of sanctions sometimes disrupt those students who genuinely want to learn. Those who do not want to participate should be dismissed from the education program without penalty. Instead, administrators should contemplate the needs of prisoners, then create meaningful incentives that persuade them to make the personal commitment to educate themselves. A motivated student learns better than a resistant student.

When inmates are serving sentences that require them to serve years in prison, they rarely appreciate the value of earning good time until it’s too late. To them, serving six years by following all the rules is worse than serving seven years without concern for rules. Yet if administrators implemented a meaningful incentive system that brought immediate changes to the prisoner’s life, many would make the personal investment. Prisoners can embrace the concept of immediate gratification, though they struggle to value concepts that do not materialize for years.

Some examples of incentives that administrators could offer to induce prisoners to participate in education programs include access to more and better visiting opportunities, more telephone access, or access to other privileges that do not cost taxpayers anything. Prisoners live lives of deprivation. If administrators provided a means for them to work toward improving their lives in meaningful, immediate ways, more prisoners would prepare for successful lives upon release. When they cannot see release dates, however, compulsory education is ineffective.

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