Rocking the Prison Ship

By Matthew Chase

A mind is a terrible

Thing to waste, but

Not worse than an entire life

(Lavon Johnson)


Prison is a sad place

Lonely cells in long rows

Don’t go to prison

(Terrell Shaw)

These are the haiku of two prisoners incarcerated in a high-security correctional facility outside of St. Paul, Minnesota. Two of sixteen men who were part of a creative writing class offered by Professor Deborah Appleman, Chair of Educational Studies at Carleton College, who later wrote on the experiences of these men and how they found empowerment through creative writing. Although I mentioned before how the prison library is often perceived as the center for correctional education, it is not to suggest prison libraries are all that are offered. Volunteers like Appleman often prove essential for inmates to get some sort of education behind bars.

prison blog 2The men that she was teaching were sentenced for serious criminal offenses. The youngest of the men was 22 and the oldest being 60, with some having been incarcerated for as brief as 5 months and others for longer than 25 years. Appleman explained that 13 of the men were “non-Specter eligible,” referring to a law that prohibited prisoners convicted of felonies from taking the college classes offered at a facility through state or federal funding. It was only because she was volunteering her teaching services that these men could enroll in the college-level creative writing class.

This gets us closer to the heart of the prison education problem. As of now, we are seeing a real need and even demand for education among prisoners. The inmates in Appleman’s class acted like any other student, as they were encouraged to explore literature to reconnect with the “free” world and examine their own lives inside prison walls. Yet this access to higher education is mainly dependent on the funding of prison libraries and the availability of volunteers, both of which struggle to satisfy the demand. But more importantly perhaps, the dependence on volunteer labor and the serious under-funding of libraries and other educational facilities go to show just how much the prison system cares about its prisoners. Billions of dollars are spent and made in constructing new prisons, and yet they consistently fail to be anything more than isolating animal pens. Research already has shown how many prisoners like Appleman’s students are denied access to a college education, in the face of overwhelming evidence supporting how education can significantly reduce recidivism and violence. And this does not even cover the more terrible reality of countless prisoners lacking even basic literacy skills; skills necessary for their successful transition back into the free world (e.g., housing, employment, etc.).

prison blogThere is a greater call to action for prisons to institute better-funded educational facilities for prisoners, to grant better access to these resources and centers, and to hire professional personnel trained specifically to address their needs and interests. Otherwise, we will remain limited to the much-needed but problematic volunteer labor of people like Appleman. While Appleman’s efforts are appreciated, they are still symptomatic of how prisoners are having to endure a world that actively seeks to break them down, dehumanize them through extreme isolation and educational deprivation.

Appleman concluded, “They are not the good guys, I remind myself. But they seem good to me.” We can no longer remain imprisoned around the discourse of good versus bad apples, not when the entire prison system continues unabated to rot from the inside out. We continue to nudge change with reform, but now it is time to rock the prison ship.


2 thoughts on “Rocking the Prison Ship

  1. This piece was very well written and insightful, but what about the other side of the story: the victims of the prisoners. Who is giving them an education afforded by the government or by volunteers like Appleman? Who is giving them the therapy and the self-worth they need to pick themselves back up and rise above the terrible situations the prisoners put them in?

    I understand that low self-worth and circumstance can and do lead many to do terrible things, and education can improve their lives and lead them to make better decisions after prison. However, I believe that those who are deemed non-Spector eligible should not be getting an education, even if it is given by volunteers. In my eyes, they have committed crimes that are simply unforgivable and should do time for them. The time and effort of the volunteers would be better spent on the prisoners’ victims or even on the prisoners’ families that are left behind suffering the loss of loved ones, the loss of income, and the stigma of being another “poor, broken family of criminals.”

    • Hi Kristyn!

      Thanks so much for responding and giving your insightful take on the issues at hand. You’re definitely right about there being other sides to this story of struggle, loss, and oppression. We can only address so much in one blog post, but we would be very interested in exploring the struggles facing the victims of crime in future blogs. With this miniseries, we want to explore the side of the prisoners which is also highly stigmatized in our society and often kept silenced within the prison walls. Yet you make a very valid point about the serious lack of state support for the victims of crime as well as the families of prisoners. In the end, no one comes out of this situation unscathed physically, mentally, and emotionally. So we need a discourse that explores all sides of the problem of crime. I wholeheartedly respect your opinion that prisoners who have committed felonies should be denied access to an education, and it seems that the state would agree with you.

      Unfortunately, we have already been denying these prisoners an education for decades. It is the common practice, and there is no meaningful benefit to it. It helps no one, although it certainly saves money for the state. Recidivism and re-incarceration continue to be prevalent. As I indicated in my blog, there is an abundance of research showing that education is the most powerful tool by far to fight against recidivism. As you said though, these prisoners committed a serious crime, but they are doing time for it. This also does not cover the prisoners serving time for minor crimes and are still denied a decent education. I would say that an education is not a reward, but a necessity. A necessity to help prevent the victims of crime, the families of prisoners, and the prisoners themselves from experiencing trauma and tragedy. I believe the issue we need to confront is not who should be educated, as it should be everyone, but really who should be the one educating. We’re putting the social responsibility on volunteers like Appleman and inadequately-funded education facilities instead, with little to no support. The state is consistently failing people in the free world as well as in the incarcerated world, and there needs to be accountability for the state’s essentially criminal neglect in this regard.

      I look forward to hearing your perspective on this subject further. Thanks so much for commenting!

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