Education From the Inside Out: A Plea for Prison Education

By Baz Dreisinger

In a decade of teaching, I have approached many a semester’s end wistfully: another goodbye to students I have, week after week, intellectually bonded with. But this semester, wistful feels more like the blues.  Image courtesy optionsri.org

I am soon to be exiled from pedagogical heaven: an English 101 class so academically voracious, they rendered my job effortless. My students not only read the material and took extensive notes, they read material weeks before I’d assigned it. They arrived armed with studied opinions about each text and page numbers containing relevant passages to shore up these opinions; they begged me for additional grammar worksheets and requested feedback on work they’d assigned themselves. When we read one particular Ralph Ellison essay, they groaned about how many times the piece had driven them to the dictionary, and I held back tears of joy: Oh for a roomful of students who studiously look up words they don’t understand!

The blues run deeper, though. Students like those in my English 101 class are few and far between ~ because they’re incarcerated at Otisville Correctional Facility, the first class in a program I launched at John Jay College of Criminal Justice: the Prison-to-College Pipeline. The pilot program has a simple goal ~ maximize the number of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people who go to college and succeed there ~ and it was prompted by a question posed by John Jay’s President, Jeremy Travis, who has written extensively about prisoner re-entry: “If over 700,000 people are leaving our prisons, how should the nation’s educational institutions be organized to help them make a successful transition to free society?”

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