Liberating Minds, a short hardcover book, is a great introduction to college in prison programs. The author, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, is faculty at Bard College, and she works directly with incarcerated men and women in college.
The book is broken into logical sections that make the case for college in prison. Condliffe Lagemann goes over the types of programs available: credit-bearing, non-credit-bearing, associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, vocation, liberal arts, etc. Other chapters make arguments for how college in prison affects life for inmates and correctional officers, the “spillover effects” into incarcerated individuals’ communities, and in what ways graduates who are released use their education to engage in democracy and citizenship.
Although this is an academic text, not a memoir, Condliffe Lagemann has a clear writing style. She uses sourced material, which you can see in the end notes and doesn’t interrupt the flow of sentences. Interwoven in the text are stories of men and women who went through a college in prison program; most of those included have been released.
Much of the interest in this text is information readers have not encountered elsewhere. For instance, many incarcerated people had similar experiences with education as children and faced obstacles that took precedent over learning:
Many of those who end up in prison also lacked the close parental supervision and experience of reading at home or listening to stories that have so much to do with developing a joy of learning and achieving school success. . . . Significant numbers of men and women in prison have also spent time in foster care or group homes, and many were abused as children.
For many, college in prison looks like a waste of tax dollars, especially the general population can’t afford higher education for their own children. When one college in prison program was shut down, the incarcerated women made a case for why it is necessary to start it up again:
We understand the public’s anger about crime and realize that prison is first and foremost a punishment for crime. But we believe that when we are able to work and earn a higher-education degree while in prison, we are empowered to truly pay our debts to society by working toward repairing some of what has been broken.
Basically, sitting in a cell doesn’t teach an inmate how to repair the damage they’ve done. It only comes from deep critical thinking and intellectual tools they earn that they then wield once released.
The author then makes a strong argument for how college also helps formerly incarcerated individuals get a foot in the door when looking for jobs. Although we are a society that believes in “paying your debt to society,” we continue to punish people who are released, not just in our attitudes, but through actions. If we are going to keep punishing released individuals, perhaps college in prison is a way to alleviate our bias? According to Liberating Minds, “One 2003 study found that only 12.5 percent of the employers surveyed were even willing to entertain job applications from people who had been to prison.” (emphasis added)
Once these formerly incarcerated people get jobs, they are more likely to do better than other employees. In fact, one employer reported “that in his firm the employees with the lowest turnover and highest rates of promotion are those with ‘criminal backgrounds who’ve completed college degrees.’ They have, he said, ‘the highest potential, demonstrated commitment, adaptability and what we call ‘hunger’ . . .”
Not only do formerly incarcerated people who’ve completed college in prison make good employees thanks to their critical thinking skills, they are only likely to return to prison at a rate of 2%. For those who did not go to college in prison, the rate of returning to prison is 30% within 6 months, and 67.8% within three years. Basically, Condliffe Lagemann makes an economic argument: it’s more costly to incarcerate and re-incarcerate than offer college in prison, and we’re losing our workforce when we put it behind bars. Here’s a part of Liberating Minds that surprised me: a list of jobs formerly imprisoned individuals cannot hold:
- home health aides
- in New York state: barber, EMT
- in Florida: acupuncturist, speech pathologist, cosmetologist
- in Illinois: pet shop owner, roofer, dietitian, architect
Although my state, Indiana, is extremely conservative, in 2017, Governor Eric Holcolm issued an executive order banning that box on applications that employees must check if they have a felony record. This will make a huge difference for those returning to the work force. Although those who went to college in prison have high success rates, that box can prevent them from even getting a second glance.
While behind bars, people who try to resist prison mentality eventually succumb if they are locked up long enough. Condliffe Lagemann convincingly argues with anecdotal evidence that attending classes and engaging in scholarly debate in cells, chow halls, and in the yard turns students’ attention away from violence and mistrust. One student in a college in prison program noted that one classmate was “a second-generation urban gang leader with the intense rage of a radicalized black man.” As the semester went on, though, the student saw his classmate’s “humanity,” which he claims “also helped him come to understand himself.”
One section of Liberating Minds that surprised me was how much families are affected by an incarcerated parent. Condliffe Lagemann notes that a 2007 study estimated that “some 2.7 million American children now have one or both parents in prison.” While at school, these children are treated differently by teachers, who see the kid as a future criminal, claiming bad children are just like their bad parents. When inmates attend college in prison, their conversations with family change drastically. For instance, one student claimed that when he speaks to his mom on the phone, instead of saying he’s been doing nothing, he talks about his classes. Other incarcerated students talk to their children on the phone or during visits, and the conversation often turns to homework, with the parent and child commiserating about math (I love this!) or hashing out ideas for papers.
For those who want to know more about college in prison programs, this is an excellent introduction.