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Essay

The Barriers to Education for a Prisoner

  • May 12th 2016

Jody Lewen is executive director of the Prison University Project, based at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California. The program, which she founded in 2003, provides a general education Associate of Arts degree and intensive college preparatory courses to people incarcerated at San Quentin.

Many students in the College Program at San Quentin State Prison develop an almost fanatical commitment to their education. They show up for class, cheerful and prepared, after waiting in the pouring rain, in spite of extended lockdowns, even on Super Bowl Sunday. For some students, persistence seems to become a kind of sport, an assertion of selfhood, or even a kind of resistance against the degradation of prison.

But that level of resolve can take a while to build, and can be difficult to sustain. Sleep deprivation and constant noise are the norm. New students may be intimidated by the classroom environment, or doubt their own intellectual abilities. Some people may become overwhelmed by their workload, especially when carrying other responsibilities like legal work, other self-help groups, athletic activities, or preparation for the parole board. People struggling with mental health issues, physical illness or injury, or grieving the death of a loved one, often find it difficult to concentrate on school.

These types of challenges can be particularly destabilizing for students for whom attending class, doing homework, staying organized, prioritizing, sacrificing, and avoiding distractions have not yet become second nature. This is especially true if becoming a dedicated student constitutes a major shift in identity, or in peer group. People who are in the midst of breaking away from drug-involved or “gangbanging” pasts expend enormous energy resisting peer pressure, as well as managing feelings of isolation, guilt, and self-doubt. 

One type of challenge stands apart for its formidable capacity to undermine academic progress, and that is when students become entangled within the prison’s disciplinary system. 

Prison punishment generally entails the denial of privileges such as yard time, packages, phone calls, visits, or recreational activities. One may also be confined to one’s cell or dorm for days or weeks, or on successive weekends, allowed to leave only for work, or for critical appointments or activities. Because any program not operated directly by CDCR (California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation) is generally treated as “recreation,” people punished with the denial of “privileges” are routinely prohibited from attending their college classes, or other self-help or recovery programs.

In some cases, people are placed in solitary confinement for weeks or months, or even given more prison time. More often than not, people are held in solitary simply because of an investigation, not because they have been found guilty of any wrongdoing. From an educator’s perspective, whether the individual is guilty or not, there is little more frustrating than having a student not only miss precious class time, but eventually be forced to drop his classes, or miss the start of a new semester, because he’s being held in solitary. What’s frustrating is not just the overuse of solitary confinement, or of these kinds of deprivation generally; it’s the complete disconnect between the moral rhetoric of discipline and the reality of its actual effects.

The Prison University Project serves approximately 350 people incarcerated at San Quentin. 

The rhetoric is that people must follow rules, and if they don’t, they should suffer some negative consequence, which will teach them to behave differently. The reality is that a great deal of prison “discipline” is not only ineffective in achieving these goals, but it actually does more harm than good.

In the context of education – as well as other programs where people are emotionally and intellectually challenged in new and often uncomfortable ways – the institution’s rituals of punishment routinely set back or even destroy emerging personal change. They not only disrupt participation; they overwhelm people with feelings of anger, powerlessness, isolation, and the sense of being persecuted. For people who are already prone to self-destructive behavior in the face of extreme frustration, the destructiveness of the institution becomes just another trigger – one more reason to give up.

Clearly the institution can always say, this is not our problem; it’s the responsibility of the individual to persist in the face of adversity. But each of us should ask ourselves what kind of force we want to be in the world, and what kinds of attitudes and values we want to model. One of the greatest demands that the institution makes of the incarcerated community is for respect. If this demand is ever to mean anything more than total deference to power, the system as a whole must strive not only for control but for moral legitimacy. 

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