By Mika’il DeVeaux, Executive Director, Citizens Against Recidivism, Inc. 


Discussion continues on whether higher education is of benefit to people in prison while incarcerated and of its usefulness when they are released. Given the competiveness of today’s world it is horrifying to know that there still remains the need to ask. When thinking of all the challenges incarcerated people face in order to leave prison alive, and then to link that reality with all the invisible punishments, collateral consequences and other barriers they must overcome to get on with their lives, requires thinking about who benefits by the continued denial of such an opportunity.


The National Employment Law Project published a report [] in mid-2011 estimating that more than one in four U.S. adults -- roughly 65 million people --have an arrest or conviction that shows up in a routine criminal background check. At yearend 2009, more than 7 million people were under correctional supervision in the United States: that is about 5 million on parole or probation and more than 2.3 million in US prisons or jails.  In today’s world of employment, arrest and or a conviction may create significant barriers to employment.


In May 2011, the Institute for Higher Education Policy published its report entitled Unlocking Potential: Results of a National Survey of Postsecondary Education in State Prisons, which suggested that approximately 71,000 of the 2.3 million incarcerated were enrolled in a vocational or academic postsecondary education program in the 2009-2010 academic year. The report also indicated that approximately 9,900 incarcerated persons earned a certificate; 2,200 associate’s degrees were awarded; and nearly 400 students earned bachelor’s degrees in the 2009–10 academic year.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) – the primary source for criminal justice statistics in the United States - suggests that nearly all who are incarcerated will eventually come home.  In this year alone, over 700,000 people will leave a US state or federal prison and well over 9 million will leave a US jail.


In prisons around New York State, there were 56,315 people under custody on January 1, 2011. Nearly four in five (78%) of those incarcerated in New York State were people of color. Recent data provided by NYS Department of Corrections suggests that a significant number in prison possessed few job skills. High rates of recidivism suggest that some people transitioning from prison face insurmountable challenges when attempting to become successful citizens.  Data from NYSDOC&CS show that as many as 60,000 people are on parole in New York State. They are largely minority (76%), poorly educated (93% have no college credit), unemployed (61%), and concentrated in urban New York (63%).[i] 


These numbers are offered to provide just a glimpse of the size of problem and the tasks ahead related to the incarceration of people in this country and their eventual release. Our current record is dismal. We are failing a segment of the community that needs assistances. This failure is evidenced by data suggesting that seven out of ten are likely to return to prison within three years following release mainly because they are ill prepared to move on with their lives. This trend can be changed, unless, of course, the factors that influence it are intentional.


Race has consistently been a factor in nearly every analysis about incarceration in the United States. Incarceration in the US disproportionately affects people of color. Among all people currently confined to a state or federal prison, two out of three are persons of color. The rates of incarceration for people of color are similarly disparate. Incarceration rates for Black male adults are six times that of White males. Hispanic men are twice as likely to be incarcerated as White men are. Similarly, Black and Hispanic women are more likely to be incarcerated than their White counterparts are.


We know that race is a factor and we would be remiss if we were to ignore race here, and we need not be apologetic about doing so. When asked about whether people in prison should be permitted access to higher education, when asked if access to educational facilities should be integral to any reentry strategy, these questions are reminiscent of similar questions asked in our recent history about the educating of African American slaves. We all know that black children were not permitted access to free public schools during their enslavement and for some time afterward because black literacy was deem a threat to the slave system established by whites and other systems of control (Jim Crow, Apartheid). The perception of this threat manifested itself in real laws that made it a crime to empower blacks with basic tools that would likely unleash transformational power, facilitate personal growth and development, and enable the once slave to contribute to the nation that had taken so much from him or her as a citizen.


And now we are back to the same questions about access to higher education. The slaves were trying to enter society. Today we are considering whether education is an important reentry strategy for more than 700,000 mostly people of color in a legal context framed by the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution which reads in part that:


Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.


Linkage to the 13th Amendment requires more discussion than we are allowed here. The ideas conveyed in the 13th Amendment fit hand in glove with the conservative racialization of crime and their punitive polices to address crime. In fact, the parallel is far from an imaginary one. One need only consider the development of the prison system and particularly its current incarnation in the explosive growth of what has been called the “prison industrial complex”[ii] to further see the parallel.  From this perspective it is an easy leap from enslavement to incarceration and with it the demonization and degradation of those convicted of a crime.


The politically conservative ideology fueling notions of punishment carries with it the urge to degrade which is manifested in the very language of criminal justice describing people who have been convicted of a crime. You know the words: inmate, felon, convict, prisoner, scum and worse. These efforts undoubtedly are employed to remind this population of their inferior status. Prior to prison most from among the incarcerated were deemed inferior by many of society’s privileged lot. The incarcerated are mainly poor, poorly educated and mostly people of color.


If we add to our brief analysis the growing divide of wealth and class in this country, we have more to consider. In his book entitled Good punishment?: Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment, James Samuel Loganreferred to language describing the incarcerated as “social wreckage of debris . . . that (had) to be managed, cleaned up, or dispensed with.” It was a “. . .  wreckage (that made) up the surplus population that our economic system of production has to manage and that the United States controls today to a growing extent by systems of punishment and confinement.”


At first glance it is easy to imagine that within our system of punishment going to prison alone is the punishment. It is hard to believe that going to prison would mean and include the loss of all the rights and attributes of citizenship. It seems hard to imagine that an event in a person’s life would mean that they would no longer be a citizen and that they would not be permitted to pursue life, liberty and happiness unencumbered, even after violating the social contract, so long as their debt to society was paid. As a society we need to be concerned about how people are treated while in prison and move away from the notion of perpetual punishment and efforts to consign a significant segment of our adult population to a permanent underclass or caste status, as Michelle Alexander points out in her book entitled, The New Jim Crow [].


If as Americans, we intend to lead the world in the oppression of its citizenry, then the act of denying access to education for the incarcerated and the erecting of barriers to education for those who have returned home makes sense. However, if this is not what we wish for our compatriots, then let us act and live up to our lofty ideals and end the suppression and oppression of our fellow citizens. In the alternative, people in prison should not wait for the largess of some whom mean them no good. Televisions should be turned off and books should be opened. Fredrick Douglass challenged the perceptions of people who were enslaved reasoning that “slaves aren't born inferior, but rather it's slavery that makes them inferior.” Just as “knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave” (Fredrick Douglas), it makes his or her life unfit for a life in prison and the perceptions of inferiority associated with such an existence.


[i]New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision



[ii] Eric Schlosser (1998) and Angela Davis (1998) were the first to relate the prison-industrial complex to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell speech where he warn of a military-industrial complex – a relationship between politicians, the press and defense contractors hoping for increases in defense spending. Schlosser (1998, p. 54) describes the prison-industrial complex as “a set of bureaucratic, political and economic interest that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need.” Among the more recent reading on the prison-industrial complex from various perspectives see Brewer, R. M., & Heitzeg, N. A. (2008). The Racialization of Crime and Punishment: Criminal Justice, Color-Blind Racism, and the Political Economy of the Prison Industrial Complex. American Behavioral Scientist, 51(5), 625-644; Sudbury, J. (2008). Rethinking Global Justice: Black Women Resist the Transnational Prison-Industrial Complex. Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture & Society, 10(4), 344-360; Douglas, K. & Saenz, R. (2009). The Making of Criminals: Immigrants and the Prison-Industrial Complex. Conference Papers -- American Sociological Association, 1; do Valle, A., Vanessa, H., & Spira, M. (2006). The prison industrial complex: A deliberation. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 8(1), 130-144; and Smith, E., & Hattery, A. (2006). The Prison Industrial Complex. Sociation Today, 4(2), 1-28.


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Springfield Gardens, New York 11413



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