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When what's learned here doesn't leave here: Prison education with a life sentence

saturday's picture

When what's learned here doesn't leave here: Prison education with a life sentence

Studies conducted over the last two decades almost unanimously indicate that higher education in prison programs reduces recidivism and translates into reductions in crime, savings to taxpayers, and long-term contributions to the safety and well-being of the communities to which formerly incarcerated people return. - (Prison Studies Project)

Many of the justifications for higher education in prisons stem around the prisoner’s eventual release. When prisoners get educated, they won’t come back. They get out quicker and stay out longer, saving taxpayers and prisons the cost of their care. When they return to the world at large, they bring with them skills that they can use to improve their own lot in life, as well as benefit society as a whole. However, this reasoning becomes complicated when considering the sentence length of some of these students, namely the “lifers” – those sentenced to spend the rest of their life in prison, with or without possibility of parole.

The population of prisoners serving a life sentence has more than quadrupled in size since 1984. As of 2013, one in nine prisoners are lifers, and a third of those will never see a parole hearing. Nearly half of lifers are African American and 1 in 6 are Latino. And while there are moderate downward trends in incarceration as a whole, the percentage of those serving life is on the increase[i].

The question of education (especially higher education) in prisons is parts utilitarian and moral. Is it worth it to educate prisoners who may never leave the prison and return to their communities? Is education a right for all people, or a privilege given to those deemed deserving?

Like the deputy said, "Why? What's the point?" Why should public tax dollars be used to educate prisoners who would most likely only get out in their old age, if at all?

Even more serious was the moral charge that murderers do not deserve an education. Murder is the conviction that consistently receives a life sentence; chances are, the average lifer is a murderer.  In the eyes of many in society, murderers don't even deserve to live.  So how could anyone contemplate such a notion, funding murderers for college?


Let's not forget, though, that funding for college is a vast pool amounting to billions of dollars, and it's not a zero-sum game. Funding should also be invested in the worst of society[ii].

While these inmates may not return to society beyond the prison, the impact of their education can be felt within the prison itself. Having education programs available for all decreases incidences of violence within the prison, through increases in morale and through bridging of racial barriers (though some of this comes from the fact that education is still a privilege that can be lost in these spaces, leading to self-policing in order to keep these programs available to them)[iii].

Additionally, lifers don’t all serve their sentences in the vacuum of solitary confinement. Those who live in the general population form communities of their own. A lifer learning alongside someone serving a short sentence for their first crime can pass on their experience, strengthening the members of the prison community who do return to the outside. Robert Chan, in writing about his experiences as a lifer student, explains this effect:

It's a straightforward consequentialist proposition - instill real reform in the leaders and they in turn will instill an ethos of learning and growth into the whole of the group. The positive values shared by college-educated lifers are the same values then carried by the short-termers out to society. This is in everyone's best interest because more than 95% of all prisoners will be released. When lifers mentor other prisoners in the right direction, the result is permanently lower recidivism and safer communities[iv].

It’s also worth noting that, despite the shifts in numbers, a numbers of lifers “will, in fact, eventually be paroled” by virtue of changes in sentencing laws, and that as such it’s prudent to help former lifers “develop constructive values and higher education, so that when they rejoin society, they do so not as mere parolees, but as new contributors”[v].

With this in mind, what are the impacts of interpreting existing prison education pedagogies (which can be so release-centric) with respect to lifer students? Tony Gaskew’s Humiliation to Humility perspective addresses the needs of black men in prisons, many of whom will not make it out of prison – can this process of reflection and learning still make a lasting impact when there is no leaving the oppressive structures one is learning about?

A strong theme within this pedagogy is centering one’s experiences within themselves, in understanding the systems at work while taking a great deal of personal responsibility. In the first step of Gaskew’s model, one must own their own truth by being “encouraged to look into the polished metal mirror of his prison cell and ask himself, “How did I get here”[vi]? Later on, Gaskew likens the prison system into a shark that bites and wounds and infects those trapped within it, and that “those who come in contact with the system will either unknowingly or intentionally allow others to swim in shark-infested waters, primarily others of the same race, ethnicity, and class”[vii]. Where does this path of self-blame and reflection take people who cannot find themselves traditionally redeemed? Where does this leave people who are unable to break the cycle? Gaskew also claims that the only true victims of the crimes committed are the prisoner’s own children. Murder is one of those charges that so often gets a life or death sentence. The fact that there are victims involved adds to the moral dilemma about educating lifers convicted of murder – giving them opportunities to learn and grow that they denied another person through their crime. A prison pedagogy inclusive of inmates with life sentences would do well to include that kind of self-reflection, in the conflict of wanting to better oneself while coping with the additional stigma of being considered not worth the effort.

One concept in particular that changes in significance is that of the “cultural safety cushion”. For Gaskew, an aspect of this is in the structure of prison as full alternative to life on the outside. He warns about the amenities that prisons provide: “free meals, free recreation, free medical/health services, no bill collectors, no parenting or family responsibilities, MP3 players”, can acclimatize prisoners to life on the inside, acting as “illusions that allow incarcerated Black males to look at their prison setting and feel right at home”[viii].

What about those for whom this prison is their home? In his essay, Chan describes his own set of little privileges, from family visits to radio to his own guitar. But “the limits of the incarcerated setting reduce each experience to a shadow, making the enjoyment bittersweet with remembrance of what can never be reclaimed. Such moments are only crumbs for the soul, rather than the feasts of happiness that retributionists resentfully imagine us reveling in”[ix]. The question of allowing lifers to access education is the question of whether giving up your freedom inorder to serve time means giving up your humanity while doing so.

[i] Ashley Nellis, “Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America,” The Sentencing Project, September 2013, Goes On 2013.pdf.

[ii] Chan, Robert. "From Shackles to Square Hats: Higher Education and Lifer Prisoners.” 2015.

[iv] Chan, Robert. "From Shackles to Square Hats: Higher Education and Lifer Prisoners.”

[v] Chan, Robert. "From Shackles to Square Hats: Higher Education and Lifer Prisoners.”

[vi] Gaskew 72

[vii] Gaskew 74

[viii] Gaskew 76

[ix] Chan, Robert. "From Shackles to Square Hats: Higher Education and Lifer Prisoners.”


jccohen's picture


Your final statement – “The question of allowing lifers to access education is the question of whether giving up your freedom in order to serve time means giving up your humanity while doing so” – strikes me as particularly strong and provocative, and I’d love to hear you go on some from there.  Are you suggesting, then, that access to education mirrors and bolsters a person’s “humanity”?  I’m thinking here about Sweeney, who talks about her role as an educator involving just this reflection back of participants’ humanity, intelligence, and worth, and while she doesn’t talk much about “lifers” per se, your claim for lifers here seems to me a significant extension of what she sees as the purpose of prison education.

Chan provides such an interesting perspective on these issues, as a student and a “lifer” (and this is a new piece for me, so thanks).  And this piece offers another angle on the “Humiliation to Humility Pedagogy” of Gaskew.  I’m pondering your description of this as involving a “path of self-blame and reflection” that might be unhelpful for “people who are unable to break the cycle.”  From Chan’s perspective, might Gaskew’s kind of introspection, coming from a culturally based framework, contribute to breaking others’ cycles, whether this is one’s own children or those people who will move through and out of the system more quickly?  Great question about whether an incarcerated person’s children are really “the only true victims.”