In the summer of 2019, I took a train out of Manhattan and went up the river to Sing Sing. I wrote about that day in “The Graduate” and it was one of the most memorable days of my life. I had gone to the famous prison on the banks of the Hudson to see a friend and THR contributor, John J. Lennon, graduate with a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science. His story—chaotic childhood, drugs and thuggery, life in prison for murder, and a personal transformation due to education—would fit right in with “A Story to Tell: The Importance of Education during Incarceration as Told by 22 Men and Women Who Know Firsthand,” a new report edited by Institute Fellow of Practice Gerard Robinson for the Advanced Studies in Culture Foundation.
Reading the short essays in “A Story to Tell” makes it clear that education in prison goes far beyond the worthy, if predictable, goals of increasing self-esteem and keeping prisoners out of trouble. Many of the formerly incarcerated writing here (11 men and 11 women, incarcerated between 1992 and 2020) came to prison with high school diplomas or college courses, and many completed a GED in prison before going on to certifications or higher degrees. These writers repeatedly describe the discipline, perseverance, diligence, and sacrifice needed to pursue education in a place without computers, the Internet, regular study hall and library access, and sometimes even teachers. Violence, noise, bullying, beatings, and worse can make education in prison possible sometimes only through sheer tenacity.
The loss of Pell Grants following President Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 ended college in prison—some 300 programs in America’s prisons abruptly ceased. Scores of professors and volunteers were no longer welcome inside prison walls and hundreds of prisoners were left in limbo with unfinished degrees and disrupted educations. Since then, a series of initiatives under Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump have culminated in the recent lifting the Pell Grant ban—a welcome sign that the criminal justice system might again re-focus its efforts more on rehabilitation than punishment.
That rehabilitation can take surprisingly humble forms. One woman writer in “A Story to Tell” spent long periods in solitary confinement regretting the wasted time; finally, in her forties, she earned a GED and college credits and became an academic coordinator with her “own desk, computer, and filing cabinet.” Another writer relates how she was forced to get over a math phobia by being assigned as a math teacher in the prison education program: “They didn’t put me in my comfort zone of social studies. They made me teach math.”
One prisoner who served time in Virginia enrolled in a rescue dog training program, earning certification in various related occupations—“By helping ‘second chance dogs’ find a new life, I was reciprocating the generosity.” Several writers benefited from classes in economics and entrepreneurship to understand loans and banking, to craft business plans, and to open their own businesses after release. One writer relates that a statistics class “taught me how to analyze data as a whole and not just accept what someone showed me. No longer will I be tricked or finessed into believing false statements or misleading advertisements.” Others are pursuing careers in sports journalism, real estate and economic development, ministry, criminal justice, and a variety of nonprofits and advocacy groups. It is also striking how many writers credit world history class as the place where they learned about other cultures and ideas and developed patience, tolerance, and respect for the viewpoints of others.
The obstacles to learning—other than a lack of programs—are formidable: one day a week for study hall or bullies such as the “harmful, grossly ignorant, weightlifting ritualist” who challenged one author as weak for reading a book—he later taught that same “muscle head” how to read. One writer overcame tight administrative controls between himself and his writing professor to publish an article that examined how his experience on a manual Swintec typewriter (a clear-case machine sold in the prison system) has affected prison literacy. My friend at Sing Sing, who used a Swintec for years, has been thrilled with the upgraded equipment now available in the New York prison system: He and his peers now have access to tablet computers that enable inmates to email and share files, to edit documents, and to share short videos. Access to the tablets is subject to limits and review, but they are infinitely faster and easier and provide greater family contact and computer literacy.
At Sing Sing on that muggy summer day, I met a man who went into prison with a ninth-grade education and discovered, through a Hamilton College creative writing class, that he had a story to tell. Education gave him the discipline, the tools, and the ambition to tell that story and he now has a list of publications that would be the envy of any journalist. “A Story to Tell” reminds us that prisoners are, to paraphrase attorney and activist Bryan Stevenson, more than the worst things they ever did. Education in prison changes meaninglessness into meaning—it changes the ending to the story.