Outside ChanceBy Gina Piccalo
Much of this renewed interest is motivated by the nation’s worst financial crisis in 80 years. It costs exponentially more to imprison people — an estimated $50 billion a year — than it does to educate them. Whatever the real motivator for the change, though, research shows that society will benefit as a result. There’s a well-proven correlation between education and lower crime rates, reduced recidivism, and healthier communities, Stern reminds us.
“And people are pushing now to figure out how to use this knowledge as momentum,” she says. “People are starting to think creatively.”
In New Jersey this year, the legislature is considering a $12 million package of bills that would not only mandate education and job training in prisons, but also make people on parole eligible for food stamps and other welfare programs.
Naturally, the academic community, though seriously thwarted by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, hasn’t given up on this population. Long-standing programs such as San Francisco State University’s Project Rebound, the Bard Prison Initiative, the Inside-Out Prison- Exchange Program at Temple University, Boston University’s Prison Education Program, and the Education Justice Project at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, to name a few, are still proving the benefits of higher education in prison.
Their results lead others to help. In 2003, Alabama Prison Arts and Education took root at Auburn University and is now creating libraries and teaching arts at 18 prisons in the state. In Boston, Bunker Hill Community College has for the last two years funded classes for about a dozen people with criminal records. After they graduate, the students are required to give back to the community by volunteering at approved nonprofits. Last fall, Wesleyan University launched its privately funded, two-year pilot program, the Center for Prison Education, which offers a liberal arts education to inmates at Cheshire Correctional Institute.
And in September 2008, Stern and Bruce Western, director of the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, launched the Prison Studies Project, which developed a four-year partnership with Boston University’s Prison Education Program and the Massachusetts Department of Correction. The program allows Harvard students to take college courses inside prisons alongside students admitted to Boston University as full students while incarcerated. Stern has co-taught two courses at MCI Norfolk and a third course at MCI Framingham, the oldest women’s prison in the United States.
At one of Stern’s so-called “inside/out” classes, Harvard students gather each week inside the prison’s school building for a three-hour “urban sociology” seminar with the incarcerated Boston University students. Everyone works together throughout the semester to find solutions to problems of race, poverty, crime, and gang violence. Initially, the contrast is striking between the incarcerated and the nonincarcerated students. But over time, they become powerful collaborators. For the students who don’t leave the prison after class, this is an invaluable dose of humanity.
“People who are mistreated know they’re mistreated and know that our justice system is broken,” says Stern. “Students in prison have historically been excluded from educational opportunity and they can’t learn when they’re being objectified. They may not be able to articulate dehumanization but they can feel it. And when they’re in a classroom space, which can be a kind of sacred space, being listened to, where no questions are stupid, it resonates that this is a real learning environment and education is deeply transformative.”