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Educating Convicts [And Ex-Convicts!]: Building Community Connections

Butterfly Wings's picture

In America, as we have often discussed in class, incarceration is more often viewed as a space designed to punish, rather than rehabilitate or empower people to escape a system designed to capture and isolate them.  Further, the prison system tends to punish a very select group of individuals, those labelled “dangerous” by our white, patriarchal society. It is rigged to take in greater numbers of the people deemed most contrary to said world, as evidenced by the fact that the numbers of black women in prison is swelling the most (Halkovic).  Removing them from general society not only allows society to create many lies around them, but keeps them from expressing their own needs and having them resolved. Out of the public eye, they are easily forgotten.

Higher education of convicts (and ex-convicts) is also fought against . The idea of higher education, thusly, is a point of great contention. Why should people deserving punishment instead be rewarded with educational opportunities? The federal decision to prevent incarcerated individuals from receiving Pell Grants speaks to this sentiment (exclusionary and cruel as it is).  Further,  higher education (both within and immediately after prisons) connects those within the prison to the outside world. It empowers convicts by helping them to find a sense of self in society, breaks their enforced isolation, and helps them better understand the workings of the prison industrial complex. 

By its very nature, education trains people to find viable lifestyle options upon release and to make connections within society. These life choices can range from careers off the street and outside the circles of abuse that led them to prison, to learning about passions previously kept from them. Halkovic’s article, specifically his sections on the life stories of Manny and Henry, address these two routes. Learning about the state of the world led the two to not only wish to help others facing similar struggles, but provided them with the tools to actually do so. Education gave them a new avenue from which they could give back to community and alter their roles in society. Social work also inherently embeds them among people outside of and within the system, while totally altering the labels put on them by their community. Their new roles earn them respect, and break many of the stereotypes of “criminals”/convicts held when said people are kept isolated. Specifically in Manny’s story, there is a moment when several fellow students stated they would not have guessed at his prison history (Halkovic 507); his involvement in the community through education forced his fellow students to re-evaluate their prior assumptions about prisoners and “criminals”. Further, Manny in particular felt he led a “life [that] had no value” (Halkovic 506) because of his role as a disenfranchised latino man. His shattering of the shackles of expected-low-achievement empowered him to feel like a valuable, “capable” (Halkovic 507) human being who could look after others. In defying stereotypes through prison education, he gained the confidence to continue his studies and making a difference to those in similar situations to his own. Further, once a career is attained/chosen, or even once the role of student is assumed, it is significantly easier to change one’s lifestyle beyond the stereotypical labels placed upon them. 

Manny’s education, beyond empowering him, also helped him to uncover passions previously off-limits to him. Becoming incarcerated is inherently dehumanizing and demoralizing; in having the world of academics opened to him in prison through various programs, Manny came to recognize the value of theater in his life. Shakespearean theater, like “Measure for Measure”, once so remote to him, could become a passion in his life, allowing him to embrace a love for script-writing (Halkovic 507).  This newly-discovered love gave him the opportunity to work with a group putting on “Measure for Measure”, which tied in with his own experiences with the injustice of the justice system.

Education is an excellent way of finding such routes to engage with the world; regardless of whether higher learning takes place after release or within the prison itself. If one is inspired by experiences within the institution to learn post-jailtime, being involved with school itself directly allows them to make concrete connections to people in a new community. This group of new people is distinctly separate from the original social cycles that lead an individual to arrest; they all interfere in the cycle of comfortable habits in recidivism. They can interact with someone anew, independent of prior histories or stereotypes about an ex-convict, allowing said person to build off this blank slate and develop a new type of future. In a merit-based academic setting, an ex-convict is better able to develop new ties to society and re-identify themself. 

While still within prison, education allows inmates to stay engaged in and aware of the world outside the concrete walls. This continued renewal of world knowledge allows them to not only reintegrate more successfully after prison, as people aware of what they will be walking into, but prevents them from feeling as isolated from the outside. Constantly seeing themself in the context of the world, even when behind bars, and being knowledgable of the issues facing their community, allows them to establish a sense of self within the context of society.

This awareness of role is further enhanced when higher education makes an effort to teach convicts and ex-convicts about the corrupted and all-reaching problematic nature of the prison industrial complex. This is a process similar in fashion to Moore’s pedagogical approach to working with incarcerated people of color, specifically those of African descent.  He believes in the Akan people’s concept of “Sankofa”, which “symbolizes the importance of knowing one’s past to build a successful future” (Moore 57). While Moore approaches this with the thought that Black people will specifically benefit from learning about their cultural legacies in Africa, addressing history in a more ancient historical context, sankofa could also be applied in terms of empowering victims of the prison industrial complex (PIC). Making convicts and ex-convicts aware of the role of the PIC in their own incarcerations and the treatment they receive inside can often greatly relieve the level of personal guilt they feel. In Shigematsu, D’Arcangelis, and Burch’s piece “Prison Abolition in Practice”, learning about the targeting and corruption of the prisons system empowered Susan Burton to create “A New Way of Life” (NWL), an organization that helps educate and empower other women similarly abused by the system (Shigematsu 137). In many cases, exposing 

“how the penal system works to label certain groups of people as ‘convicts’ or ‘felons’, a status that simultaneously impacts one’s sense of self-worth and cuts off a person’s opportunities to lead a healthy economically self-sustaining life” (Shigematsu 141)

helped women to relieve some of their own personal guilt regarding their incarceration, which allows them to re-evaluate their roles in society and take strides towards creating better lives, wherein they can once more value themselves as members of a community.

Higher education of both convicts and ex-convicts is incredibly important, as it allows for the finding of passions and identities previously withheld from them. It provides them with opportunities to follow new life paths, breaking the cycles of abuse that lead them to be trapped in prison, both in connecting them concretely to other people and in permitting them to pursue new career options. Education also helps them to better understand their own level of personal guilt in their crimes so they can value themselves and build new, healthy relationships with other people.


jccohen's picture

Butterfly Wings,

I think you’re speaking to both higher education of those in prison and access to higher education for formerly incarcerated people partly to make the point “empowers convicts [and those formerly inside?] by helping them to find a sense of self in society” – is this key to your claim in this paper?  While I appreciate your close reading of some of the passages from Halkovic about the narratives of Manny and Henry, for me the essay became most interesting when you brought in Moore’s teaching of Sankofa.  These two situations are of course quite different – one outside and one inside, one a more open-ended college situation and the other aimed at teaching personal/cultural history with a theme of empowerment…  Would you say that both of these instances of higher education mean to be empowering by offering “opportunities to follow new life paths, breaking the cycles of abuse that lead them to be trapped in prison, …and pursue new career options”?

On a somewhat different note, how might you/we begin to imagine ways of making college more accessible to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people?