By William R. Piper
To begin, environmental survival concerns the ability of the prisoner to sustain his well-being given the rigors of prevailing prison conditions. Imprisonment entails a form of secondary socialization in which prisoners have to adapt to prison as a way of life. Old modes of living are shattered and they have to adjust themselves to the deprivations of prisons. They might do this in a number of ways. The range of such adjustment entails the pain of imprisonment in which prisoners must come to grips with a new reality, a new concrete situation in which the events in the prison setting fail to corroborate their prior social experiences.
Prison conditions constitute the concrete situation in which prisoners find themselves and in which they must not only survive, but must transform and from which they struggle to free themselves. Although constituting the prisoners concrete situation, prison conditions should not be perceived as hopeless or unalterable, but merely as limiting and therefore challenging.
I have been incarcerated since 1992, and during my imprisonment as a result of an unlawful arrest and conviction, I have witnessed the need for continuing education, along with other programs equipped to provide a means of positive change.
It cannot be disputed that providing education begins a process of enabling and motivation. It motivates the person to look at themselves and seek change; and it enables a person not only to gain information but to open their minds and spirits to more objective and positive views of the world and their own ability to establish a place for themselves in the world.
Education enables a person in prison to see the potential for change and the possibility of a new life. Indeed, it allows the person to think more responsibly and, in thinking more responsibly, the person’s attitudes and values are called into question.
When attitudes and values are objectively looked at, the full range of social and community obligations begin to take root in that person’s mindset. This in turn creates “positive” changes in one’s behavior.
It can furthermore be argued that education inspires a person to develop those essential human qualities that are necessary to all social and community relationships. With education men and women can return to their communities from prison, bringing the spirit of positive change. Without it, they bring only the worst of the experiences encountered as a result of their exposure to imprisonment and the Criminal Justice System’s practice of warehousing a particular class of people.
In most state correctional systems, education of incarcerated inmates is a legislative mandate. Although most institutions have some kind of education program, there are marked differences in kind and extent. Early efforts were aimed simply at teaching prisoner to read. With 12 million people in the United States considered functionally illiterate, it is not too surprising that those at the bottom of the barrel have literacy problems in even greater measure.
Notably, today most prisoners are able to achieve at least a high school education (or GED) through institutional programs, and it is imperative to keep in mind that in the “past” the more progressive institutions were offering courses at the two-year and four-year college level. Indeed, without education, prisoners leave prison and return to the same environments of hopelessness and desperation with the same inability to cope with the demands of living and making a living.
Many of the materials and vocational training programs are out-of-date, thereby not affording prisoners the ability to compete in the job market after release. Here, crime statistics on “recidivism” show that many released prisoners fall victim to repeated actions of criminal behavior just to survive and end up returning to prison. This mishap, known as the “revolving door,” can be seen as a chain of events which forces prisoners to recidivate because prisons are not given the resources to provide the necessary skills and education to enable ex-offenders to succeed.
Education is a means of providing an opportunity for change that helps the person and serves the interests of society by providing the person in prison with inspiration for change and the positive means of pursuing positive alternatives to past criminal lifestyles. Ultimately, most people in prison will be released back into their communities; back into society. The question many people fail to consider is: how they will return. Yes, with what attitude, values, or behavior?
Here, the question presented can only be answered by determining the degree to which society supports education for prisoners; or the degree to which they don’t. Sadly, we are reminded of Dostoevsky who correctly stated that “The degree of civilization of a society can be judged by entering its prisons…”