A mind is a terrible
Thing to waste, but
Not worse than an entire life
Prison is a sad place
Lonely cells in long rows
Don’t go to prison
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.
The 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.).
There 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.