Liberating Minds: The Case for College in Prison by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann

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)

liberating minds

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:

  • security
  • banking
  • schools
  • 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.

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20 comments

  1. This sounds like a really interesting book. I am already sold on the fact that education should be more readily accessible for incarcerated people. In fact, the only time I have been inside a prison so far was to watch a Christmas pantomime put on by the men that my mum used to teach. The evidence is so compelling that I don’t really understand what all the hoopla is about, though I realise a lot of people feel very strongly about it.

    Have you been listening to the podcast Ear Hustle? I’m behind on it, but it’s about life in San Quentin prison, hosted by one of the inmates with an artist. They interview other inmates about a whole range of topics, and I think education came up recently (one of the episodes I haven’t listened to yet).

    • I’ve listened to a few of the podcasts, but I’m also behind. I’m heading out on a long trip this week and should get through several. The episode that super broke my heart was about the guy with pets in prison. At the end, they asked what animal the inmates would want to be and why. Their answers were so telling.

      The great thing about this book is that it makes a case for both liberal and conservative people. Liberals see education as a human right. Conservatives are sold on the fact that it costs less to educate people and reduces recidivism, which costs us less in tax payer dollars. Now when it comes to private prisons, that’s another story….

  2. This sounds absolutely fascinating. I’ve always believed that education in prison is of benefit to everyone, and it sounds as though this makes the case quite effectively. I think we’re long overdue for new ways to re-think our justice system. And preparing incarcerated people for productive lives after their releases is a big part of that, in my opinion.

    • We had a period during which we were educating people in prison, which was funded by Pell grants, but Clinton, always pressured to be “tough on crime,” got rid of them, and things haven’t been the same since. The consortium of liberal arts education in prison in which I taught was funded by private grants and donors.

  3. Compelling stuff. It makes me worry now that privatization of prisons is increasing that we (the U.S.) REALLY won’t give a crap about prisoners or their futures once we can make money off of them. But I love how you ended the post, with the ways in which educating prisoners spills over positively into their children’s lives. I hope that one day we can radically reform our prison system in America. I feel like there is a growing movement, if only we can get leadership that is amenable.

    • I support Just Leadership USA because they are fighting to close prisons. Right now, they have a promise from the mayor to close Rikers Island. The mayor said it would be closed in ten years; they said that wasn’t fast enough and are working to close it even sooner. I support them with a yearly contribution: https://www.justleadershipusa.org/

    • Yes, getting a foot in the door is hard, so the evidence shows formerly incarcerated men and women tend to stick with it. The exception seems to be when people who used to sell drugs and make loads of money get a legal job that pays almost nothing. The temptation to sell drugs is strong. Also, be aware that calling formerly incarcerated people “ex-con” is considered offensive by many. After they’re released, they citizens like everyone else.

  4. So much yes to all this. The school-to-prison pipeline is a very real thing and I wish we would invest more in poorer communities. The drive to improve these communities is there, but the money often isn’t. I totally see the advantage of offering college courses in prisons. I think we are raised to think people in prison are bad people rather than most are forced into these kind of lifestyles. That’s not even touching racial disparities within our criminal justice system.

    • The book really creates an argument that is meant to win over both political parties in the United States. If you’re more liberal, you see education as a right. If you are more conservative, however, you should be persuaded by the argument that it actually costs less to educate prisoners than it does to keep them incarcerated, especially considering how many people return to prison throughout their lives. That’s not even talking about the number of elderly people who are now populating prisons, and prisons aren’t designed to be nursing facilities. Even an elderly incarcerated people are good candidates for college in prison because they tend to be non-violent due to their older age (not so young and irrational), and then the education helps them get a good job when they are released. This is a great book for all readers.

  5. We – Anglophone countries generally – fall down so badly in our responsibility to give underclass children an education, or even to keep them safe, that giving them a decent education once we have them locked up as juveniles or adults seems the least we can do (not to mention, just plain good sense!).

    • Is there a similar problem in Australia? I thought the US took the ball and ran away with it on incarceration, but I’m not totally educated on incarceration rates globally.

      • Prison populations are blooming here as there. Part of the problem is private ownership – there is no incentive, indeed there’s the opposite, to reduce recidivism. Our other huge problem is that rates of imprisonment for Indigenous people are out of control – 2,350 per 100,000 of population compared with 150 per 100,000 for non-Indigenous. This reflects chronic racism in the police and the courts but also failures in education and welfare.

        • Oh, jeez. I didn’t know that. I hope you’ve got some grassroots civil rights groups there. We have many in the US, but they seem to rely on volunteers, donations, etc.

  6. I completely agree with education in prisons-I know it’s an uphill battle to convince other people of the benefits, but to me it’s so obvious. I’ve heard one person say it like this: “the person sitting in prison right now is most likely going to be your neighbor in a few years-what kind of person would you want to be living next to, an educated, or uneducated person?”

    • That’s a good way to think of it, but the reality is most incarcerated people are released where they were picked up, which tend to be areas of poverty. If they don’t have family to go to, they may end up in a halfway house or homeless or back in prison.

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