Top Ten Prison Reform Goals, Article 2: Prison Reforms Ought to Offer Incentives to Transform Prisoners into Students and Teachers

By · Friday, December 26th, 2008

Our prison system churns out repeat failures at an alarming rate. As a prisoner who has been locked in various prisons since 1987, I’ve learned a great deal from the thousands with whom I’ve served time. Personal experiences, observations, and lessons I’ve learned from others convince me that I know the prison reforms necessary to lower the appalling recidivism rate.

Effective prison reforms would offer incentives that motivate prisoners to become students and teachers.

In today’s federal prison system, administrators compel those who lack a high school education to participate in classes or study programs designed to bring each prisoner up to a high school equivalency level. Those prisoners who refuse to participate in the mandatory education program suffer penalties. They lose access to potential good-time credits, and they earn lower nominal wages from prison jobs. Yet high recidivism rates strongly suggest that high-pressure tactics like compulsory education programs fail to prepare prisoners for successful re-entry into society.

Through my work in writing about prisons, the people they hold, and strategies for growing through confinement, I’ve spoken with hundreds of prisoners. Many of those men serve lengthy sentences after continued failures following previous releases from prison. Despite citing struggles in finding adequate employment as the underlying reason for their repeated returns to prison, few make the full commitment necessary to educate themselves in meaningful ways. They suffer from an apathy that only gradual incentives can cure.

Tom provides an example of an attitude that I find typical of the prisoners I’ve interviewed. Tom served nine years in a California prison and was released in 2002. He said that upon his release, he could not find sustainable employment. The wages Tom earned while working at a car wash were insufficient for him to save the funds necessary to rent his own apartment. He said that after a full week’s work, he paid his expenses and was left with $3 in disposable income.

“If I bought an order of fries with my cheeseburger I would be over budget.”

While still in the halfway house, Tom engaged in criminal activity that resulted in his receiving a new prison term of ten years. I met him a few months after he arrived at the prison where I was held. Tom told me that he had no choice but to commit another crime, as he wasn’t making it in society as a working man.

Despite the new term, Tom served his time in ways that were unlikely to prepare him for sufficient employment upon his next release. He played cards. He participated in classes like leather shop, beading, and crocheting. Since Tom had earned his GED during his previous term, Tom felt certain that he had all the formal education he needed.

“More school ain’t gonna help me none,” Tom rejected my suggestion that he participate in a program that could lead to his earning an associate’s degree from Taft Community College. “No one out there’s gonna hire no felon. And these people here don’t care nothin’ about me going to school. All they want is that I earn me some certificates and that’s what I’m doing. I got ten years to serve. That’s all that matters. I’ll worry about what I’m gonna do when I get out of here.”

Prison reforms ought to change such attitudes, and my experience has convinced me that meaningful incentives would help. Prisoners like Tom fill our nation’s prison system. They lack an appreciation for the importance of education, and release dates that hover years or decades away lulls prisoners into a dangerous complacency. Too many prisoners become comfortably numb to their surroundings. All of society has an interest in motivating people in prison to work toward earning freedom, which is one reason that we need prison reforms now.

Legislators and administrators ought to introduce incentives that will motivate prisoners to both learn and teach. Those who educate themselves will have deeper skill sets from which they can draw when striving to create places for themselves in society upon release. If prison reforms were introduced that offered prisoners opportunities to work toward improving their quality of life while they served their sentences, and perhaps advance their release dates through a series of sustained accomplishments, legislators and administrators would simultaneously lower recidivism rates. Such prison reforms would make society safer and lower the costs of operating our $60 billion prison system.

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