The Public Humanist

Educating “Us and Them”: Breaking Stereotypes and Moving Towards a More Effective Correctional System

I wholeheartedly agree with my colleague, Kristen Bumiller, who argues that increasing access to higher education for people caught up in the criminal justice system could make a world of difference for individuals, their families, and the communities they reside in. Multiple studies have concluded that education is instrumental in reducing recidivism rates by increasing earning potential, and improving self-esteem and decision-making skills.

Documenting the positive impacts of education in the rehabilitation process isn’t the problem. The problem is in breaking the stereotypes about inmates held by overworked and underpaid practitioners in the criminal justice system and acquiring the support necessary to run successful educational programs behind bars. Therefore, the more challenging, and thus more interesting problem becomes how the liberal arts classroom can transform the belief systems of students who are or will be employed within our political and criminal justice systems and those who will be making the important decisions regarding correctional programming in our institutions.

Not too long ago, inmates had access to Pell grants to pay for their education while serving their time. Colleges across the country offered courses through multiple prisons in a variety of formats giving otherwise “idle” inmates the opportunity to obtain college degrees. This practice ended in 1994 when a Texas Senator, Kay Hutchison, successfully argued to Congress that inmates who were receiving Pell grants did so at the expense of law-abiding students.

Under this “principle of least eligibility” the public became outraged at the thought that a criminal might receive college money that would otherwise be going to their sons and/or daughters. That is, criminals should not be eligible for benefits that are not first afforded to law-abiding citizens. Unfortunately, this attitude, combined with scarce resources, frustration with the system, and distortions about crime created by the media has produced the demise of much correctional programming across the country. This is not a new problem. Books including Benevolent Repression and Conscience and Convenience provide readers fascinating historical accounts about how the lofty ideals of an educated and enlightened society to help the downtrodden failed miserably in their application.

I, too, was recently involved in an educational program set in a high security, protective custody unit of a local New England prison. The students were all male inmates housed in the unit and were in protective custody either due to the nature of their crimes, their status (former police officers and juveniles for example) or for being a “snitch.” Dr. Susan Peterson, a Literature professor from Curry College, developed the course and had previously taught the course in other institutions. The course curriculum combined elements of “Changing Lives Through Literature” and Nonviolence training offered through the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies housed within the University of Rhode Island. Unlike Dr. Bumiller’s “Inside-Out” course, all of the students in the class were inmates at the prison, with the exception of two graduate students from Curry College doing research for their Master’s Thesis under my supervision.

Essentially, the course required students to study various readings which were directly or indirectly related to principles of nonviolence and participate in group discussions about their interpretation and feelings about the readings. Some examples of class readings included selected writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., selected chapters from the book Losing Jonathan, written about the life and death of the son of Robert Waxler (The Co-Director and Co-Founder of Changing Lives through Literature), and various pieces from Shelley, Hemingway, Jack London, and Frank O’Connor to name a few. The students were also given copies of a Nonviolence workbook based on the Kingian Philosophy and were tested on the material contained in the workbook in efforts to become certified in Nonviolence.

The overall goal of the course was to get the students to reflect upon their own lives and to realize the impact that their decisions had upon not only their lives, but on the lives of their families, friends, and communities, and to provide them with real world strategies they could employ in the future to make better, more productive, and most importantly, “nonviolent” decisions. The course was voluntary (except for the juveniles who were required to attend every educational opportunity afforded to them) and students could earn one day of “good time” for every sixteen hours of class attendance. College credit was not offered for the course.

The dynamics of the class setting were fascinating and mirrored much of what I had studied about people and organizations while pursuing my MA in Criminal Justice and my PhD in Political Science. The idea was simple. Let two college professors donate their time and resources two hours a week to teach nonviolence principles and discuss literature with inmates with limited opportunities for rehabilitation.

Implementing this idea, however, proved to be much more complicated. Multiple political, organizational, and economic roadblocks delayed and ultimately ended the class. However, while the class was running, the students were engaged, committed, and prepared. They posed thought-provoking questions, applied the readings to their own situations and talked openly about plans to better their lives.

Ironically, the students learned the principles of nonviolence so well they staged a sit-in to protest their treatment which provoked administrators of the prison to abruptly discontinue the course. These dynamics, I learned, are far more important to understanding the role of education in rehabilitation in the criminal justice system and must be included in any discussion about making educational opportunities more widely available to inmates. In addition, I learned that my role as a Criminal Justice professor should go beyond helping those caught up in the system to transform their lives but also to be a facilitator of change in the beliefs of those who work within the system itself.

In Massachusetts, there is a very strong financial incentive for police officers to obtain college degrees. Thus, the majority of my continuing education and graduate classes consist of sworn police officers at both the local and state level. Almost all of them want concrete tools they can use to do their jobs. This is also true for my students in prison. They routinely expressed the desire to learn “real world” strategies for using the knowledge they were gleaning from books.

Two very different and opposing populations—police officers and criminals—wanted the same thing from their educational experience—real world solutions to everyday problems. Both groups of students acknowledged the need for change in the current system, and yet both groups were equally discouraged from instituting this change citing the multiple political, organizational and economic obstacles in their way.

The liberal arts classroom can and should be a catalyst for changing the belief systems of both groups. My experiences with inmates and practitioners in the criminal justice system suggest that they share more similarities than differences. However, both groups within the criminal justice system, criminals and criminal justice employees, develop and hold longstanding stereotypes about one another creating an “us vs. them” mentality that perpetuates a cycle impeding successful implementation of rehabilitative programs. Both groups cite experiences with a handful of individuals to represent the larger group. These stereotypes contribute to an environment in which political, organizational, and economic roadblocks flourish.

My role as a liberal arts instructor is to challenge these destructive belief systems and provide my students with a curriculum that forces them to look beyond stereotypes and develop insightful and effective programming (such as the “Inside-Out” or Changing Lives through Literature programs) in efforts to reduce recidivism and improve the quality of life for all of us.

Rebecca Paynich, Professor of Criminal Justice, Curry College

© 2014 The Valley Advocate