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Higher Education Inside.
November 17, 2009 1:59 PM   Subscribe

Wesleyan, a liberal arts college in Middletown, CT, has started a program that allows inmates in a nearby high-security prison to take classes. The students are selected competitively - with only a 16% acceptance rate - and receive the same rigorous education provided to Wesleyan undergrads. Here you can read some of their work. The Bard Prison Initiative [Previously on Metafilter] features a similar program.

Higher education has long been considered a key tool for decreasing recidivism rates, but has faced challenges due to a 1994 ban on Pell grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals. A report released last January from the Correctional Association of New York makes the case for re-thinking the ban.
posted by lunit (42 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
I went to Wesleyan and have also taught at Wesleyan. I didn't know about this program until now, but stuff like this makes me proud of my alma mater. Go, Wes!
posted by Dr. Wu at 2:05 PM on November 17, 2009


What struck me, in particular, about this program is that some of the students enrolled have sentences greater than 50, 60, or even 100 years. This doesn't seem to a program exclusively designed to ease recidivism rates in that case.
posted by lunit at 2:06 PM on November 17, 2009


The BPI is one of the few things that make me proud to be a Bard alumnus (well, that and this awesomely weird building which sadly didn't exist when I was a student there). I'm really happy to hear that other liberal arts colleges are following in their footsteps.
posted by dersins at 2:09 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


All I really know about Wesleyan is that they have an awesome film program (led by Jeanine Basinger) that's produced people like Joss Whedon and Craig Thomas & Carter Bays who've produced some of my favorite visual media.
posted by kmz at 2:14 PM on November 17, 2009


Holy balls, this is great.
posted by Greg Nog at 2:21 PM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is a great idea. Critical thinking and access to education must surely reduce crime rates. This is what our prisons should be like on a larger scale: offering educational opportunities to those incarcerated.
posted by HabeasCorpus at 2:24 PM on November 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


The examples of work are all English and Sociology. Not for me to judge, of course, and I do approve the concept - but I'd be happier if I saw some more history or math or foreign languages or film studies.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:25 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Indigo:

Next semester, the inmates will study chemistry, biology and politics. This fall, their courses consist of expository writing and Sociology 152
posted by Greg Nog at 2:27 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Go Wes!
posted by gingerbeer at 2:34 PM on November 17, 2009


This is really cool. Things like this are really the best thing you can do with inmates if you want to ensure that they don't come back to prison when you let them out.

I recently got to take a tour of San Quentin (it was a complete mindfuck) but one really cool thing that happened was we got a chance to meet some life-with-parole inmates who were participating in similar programs to this one. These were waaaaay less robust than the stuff Weslyean's doing, but they do seem to help prevent recidivism. But one thing these guys said was that only the lifers were really interested in participating in these programs. Guys up on a 5 year bit usually just pumped iron and bragged until they got let out to the inevitable big party that their boys had planned for them. They had no incentive to prove to anyone that they'd learned that what they did was wrong.

And hell, in a large number of those cases what they did wasn't really wrong. Bullshit prison terms for nonviolent drug offenses. But they're still living with the violent guys, and a kid can pick up some pretty bad habits while in prison. Sometimes you have to just to get by.

So what do you do? These programs are great, but not nearly enough inmates take advantage of them. And these programs can probably only exist because of that fact. If tons of inmate's decided to do stuff like this either the funding the manpower or both wouldn't be there to take the strain.

I don't really know what the solution is, but I think the best first step would be to reduce the overall prison population.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 2:34 PM on November 17, 2009


> These programs are great, but not nearly enough inmates take advantage of them.

There aren't nearly enough programs, and the ones that do exist are being cut. The educational staff at San Quentin was reduced in this last round of stupid cuts. The programs at San Quentin are unique in California, because it's one of the few prisons next to a large urban area, and it relies heavily on volunteers from the community. Prisons in rural areas have nothing of the sort. There are mountains of evidence that show that programs like literacy training, substance abuse treatment, or vocational education are cost-effective, reduce recidivism, and make our communities safer. Yet that is exactly what is being cut by this Governor and this legislature.

> I don't really know what the solution is, but I think the best first step would be to reduce the overall prison population.

Well, yes!
posted by gingerbeer at 2:47 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Correctional Association of New York report indicates that education is linked not only to reduced recidivism, but also to less violence in prison. When I used to work with death-row inmates in Louisiana, I was told that inmates had no access to GED programs (even the kids who were high-school age) because they came there to die, not to learn. It's heartening to see something other than the "all retribution, all the time" model at work.
posted by *s at 3:29 PM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've taught philosophy (including critical thinking and logic) at a high-security correctional facility for violent youth offenders. It was a massively eye-opening experience. I saw first-hand how giving a shit about the young people we've already given up on and pushing them to challenge themselves intellectually can boost morale and brighten prospects. It's no panacea, and it's not for all inmates I assume, but this is nothing but good in my book.
posted by joe lisboa at 3:54 PM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


There's Hudson Link, Sing Sing's college education program. Be sure to check out Tim ("Shawshank Redemption") Robbins speak to the Class of 2009 [1, 2].
posted by ericb at 4:09 PM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Go Wes!
posted by rouftop at 4:16 PM on November 17, 2009


This has been done before
posted by lalochezia at 4:18 PM on November 17, 2009


Great so when I'm robbed I'll get wisecracks about what De Selby said about money.
posted by geoff. at 4:19 PM on November 17, 2009


The San Quentin program is the Prison University Project. Lots of folks from SF State, UC Berkeley, USF, etc. volunteer their time to teach there.
posted by liketitanic at 4:41 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Next semester, the inmates will study chemistry, biology and politics. This fall, their courses consist of expository writing and Sociology 152

Thank God for that. Thanks. (So many links, so many things to read through.)
posted by IndigoJones at 4:55 PM on November 17, 2009


Here is more on prison literature and the PEN American Center Prison Writing program.
posted by bearwife at 4:59 PM on November 17, 2009


"Reduced recidivism" is the economist's argument. It's like justifying democracy to leaders of industry by saying that you will save money on revolts-- as if the subjugation of the masses is a detail compared with profit.

The function of education is to feed curiosity, to awaken enthusiasm for learning, the result of which is literacy in the broadest sense of the word. It's a vocabulary of ideas, perceptions, and behaviours.

And isn't that one function of prison: to provide the time and freedom from distraction for the criminal to awaken to the complete reality of her crime? By gazing at the effects of her actions on other people, and dissecting the preceding events, she transforms herself into someone who would never fall into the same trap. Isn't that a process that prison is meant to effect?

As I imagine it, the barrier of this spiritual transformation is not short prison sentences, but the illiteracy of the incarcerated. Having a big vocabulary of ideas is the difference between saying precisely what you mean and showing it with your fists because that's the only genuine response available. It's the difference between a tiny egocentric world and a daunting, but magnificent shared human experience.

There's a lot more to education than reducing recidivism: Education does for society what imagination does for the individual.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 5:09 PM on November 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


Neat. I often felt like I was in prison when I went to Wes, as all I did was study in my 9'x 9' cinder block cell, I mean dorm room.
posted by medeine at 5:13 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Perhaps I should try and get arrested so I can finish up at Wesleyan
posted by knoyers at 6:03 PM on November 17, 2009


Wonderful.
posted by millardsarpy at 6:08 PM on November 17, 2009


Another proud Wesleyan dropout. Go Cardinals.
posted by Kinbote at 6:48 PM on November 17, 2009


A fine idea. Free education for people in jail for heinous crimes forever, and let the young folks on the outside accumulate soul crushing debt from student loans so they can go to the same classes... curmudgeonly, i know... I am sure this is a good thing and all...
posted by jcworth at 7:09 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


What Knoyers said.
posted by Bageena at 7:19 PM on November 17, 2009


It's like justifying democracy to leaders of industry by saying that you will save money on revolts

Which would probably be a pretty good argument, if you were trying to sell the idea of democracy to a bunch of people not particularly convinced of its worth. Right now, the U.S. public is to prison education what the Chinese Politburo is to democracy — and that might be putting it pretty nicely with regards to the public.

Saying "we should do it because it's right" is just going to get you laughed at for being a bleeding-heart who wants to waste money on the dregs of society at the expense of our children. But you can probably garner significant support for the exact same policy if you couch it as a way to reduce recidivism and decrease crime and the associated costs of imprisonment.

Sometimes the moral argument is not the winning one.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:36 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I thought Wesleyan had always done this.

Or was it pre-inmates?

Or was that Hampshire?

Bennington?
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:59 PM on November 17, 2009


Lunit wrote, "What struck me, in particular, about this program is that some of the students enrolled have sentences greater than 50, 60, or even 100 years. This doesn't seem to a program exclusively designed to ease recidivism rates in that case."

That got me thinking. A study by M. Keith Chen and Jesse Shapiro (http://www.rethinking.org.nz/images/newsletter%20PDF/Issue%2018/06%20Effect%20of%20Harsh%20Sentences%20on%20Recidivism%20-%20Shapiro.pdf) where they find evidence that people placed into higher maximum security prison have lower recidivism than those who don't, comparing only those people who on an incoming screen scored just high enough points that put them past the arbitrary cutoff requiring higher security (comparing them with those in lower security that scored high - a method of comparison called regression discontinuity).

While clearly term-life prisoners will not directly benefit, in the form of reduced recidivism, one wonders about their cellmates. If there are positive and negative peer effects, then even educating life-termers could reduce recidivism indirectly through positive peer effects. (Peer effects is one of the mechanisms mentioned in the Chen and Shapiro study).
posted by scunning at 8:18 PM on November 17, 2009


A fine idea. Free education for people in jail for heinous crimes forever, and let the young folks on the outside accumulate soul crushing debt from student loans so they can go to the same classes... curmudgeonly, i know... I am sure this is a good thing and all...

You're right that it's absurd, but the answer is to make it easier for law-abiding citizens to get quality education without soul-crushing debt, of course.
posted by rodgerd at 10:18 PM on November 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


Which would probably be a pretty good argument, if you were trying to sell the idea of democracy to a bunch of people not particularly convinced of its worth. Right now, the U.S. public is to prison education what the Chinese Politburo is to democracy — and that might be putting it pretty nicely with regards to the public.

Saying "we should do it because it's right" is just going to get you laughed at for being a bleeding-heart who wants to waste money on the dregs of society at the expense of our children. But you can probably garner significant support for the exact same policy if you couch it as a way to reduce recidivism and decrease crime and the associated costs of imprisonment.

Sometimes the moral argument is not the winning one.


You're absolutely right.

But, who are we trying to convince in this thread? If we were politicians, then I could understand making a policy appeal to the masses.

Would you tell your children that they should share because people will share with them if they do? Would you tell them not to take from others because they might get caught and be punished? We don't do this because it's a lie. We want our children to share and not steal because of the ideal of fraternity, which we know through our experience.

For some reason, we have given up on ideals when it comes to adults. If we want anyone's support, we feel forced by expedience to couch our position in selfish terms, and by doing so we promote this stupid culture of egocentricity. And then we pay the price of that culture when people screw each other over.

With prisoners, we've gone a step further. Many people believe that prison is punishment, a philosophy that justifies guards torturing prisoners. The problem here is not that we need better surveillance of prison guards. It is that we acquiesce to a doctrine of vengeance.

You're absolutely right that egocentric people who have made it to adulthood still believing in retributive justice are going to dismiss me as pretending to be Jesus, but the truth is still the truth. I don't want to tacitly accept an expedient lie. If everyone does that, then we have no hope of getting past this point.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 11:02 PM on November 17, 2009 [16 favorites]


You know what would be really radical of Wesleyan? If they actively recruited potential students from poor, predominantly minority areas before these people were sent to jail!
posted by autoclavicle at 11:14 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


As others have pointed out, this has been done before. My alma mater had a degree granting program for years before funding (don't recall if it was federal or state or both) was cut. Of course, mine was a little liberal arts school in Buffalo no one has ever heard about. Go Wes, but this really isn't particularly novel or noteworthy.
posted by jdfan at 2:59 AM on November 18, 2009


This is a great idea as long as they don't start offering MBA courses.
posted by srboisvert at 8:24 AM on November 18, 2009


Go Wes!
posted by taliaferro at 9:14 AM on November 18, 2009


I was going to bring up how awesome my alma mater is because it totally defeats Wesleyan in all things, including prison education, but dersins beat me to it.

(I kid! Good on Wesleyan!)

*dersins, did you live in a ravine, by chance? (Oh, gosh, I hope you're not an even more recent grad than me!)
posted by zizzle at 10:04 AM on November 18, 2009


Why yes, yes I did. Or, as we called it, the Ewok village.
posted by dersins at 10:40 AM on November 18, 2009


Well, did you hear that the ravines fell into the uh...ravine in 2001? Spring semester of my freshman year. One day there were ravines, the next day two of them were in the ravine -- one split in half. Then in true Bard form, the rest were intentionally knocked in. Okay...I won't derail this any more from the original topic, but boy do I love Bard so much for the stuff like that.
posted by zizzle at 10:53 AM on November 18, 2009


Whoa, no I didn't hear that. But it doesn't surprise me. Those thing swayed in a high wind, and every time anyone in the building was having sex it felt like the whole place was about to tip over into the ravine. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
posted by dersins at 11:44 AM on November 18, 2009


Programs that educate anyone, anywhere are to be lauded. I think EVERY prisoner, especially if they are expected to get out should have an exit survival plan. Warehousing people for 5 or 10 or more years and then sending them back out to their old communities with no new skills, psychologically and occupationally, is an exercise in recidivism.
posted by shoesietart at 2:02 PM on November 18, 2009


Very pleased for Wesleyan, though of course I'd rather see states and the federal government doing this rather than leave it up to charity.

Obreshkove is GONE?!? I met my wife in that dorm.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:53 AM on November 19, 2009


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