The Cuckoos Run the Ward: Why Prison Education Isn't Emphasized in American Corrections

As I sit at my desk working on my latest English paper, the noise is deafening. Men locked in their cells, yet shouting. The sound of their fists and feet colliding with their steel cell doors reverberates around the housing unit. All of these sounds are carried to my cell - cell 91 - through the space below the door and through the vent.

Nevertheless, I attempt to work, but the noise is more than a mild distraction. It's as if I'm being tapped on the shoulder each time I start a new sentence. Just when I think it can't get any worse...it does. The idiots are now beating on the walls, floors, and ceilings of their cells. A football game must be on the TV.

It's amazing to see not only the pure stupidity of three-fourths of my housing units' occupants, but their sustained interest in the program. This shows that they have the potential to care, and even the motivation to do something, but they relegate themselves to simply arguing about football games or singing along to music videos. What does this say about them? What does it say about the state of American corrections when this activity is encouraged (via no roadblocks) and seeking an education is discouraged (via roadblocks)? It all seems upside down to me.

Here's a novel idea, structure correctional settings as you would your home; albeit a secure home. Liken the prisoners to a child who is having disciplinary issues. As they enter the prison system, start them on a grounded basis. Then, as they meet certain educational, rehabilitative, and conduct milestones, reward them - on an individualized basis that is. This could even be implemented on a housing unit level.

Implementing the following structure would be an interesting social experiment:

LEVEL ONE

Inmates remain locked in their cells until orientation is completed and they have successfully enrolled in the prison's GED program or in the Adult Continuing Education program if they already possess a GED.

Also use this level as a disciplinary level. If an inmate violates enough rules or policies, hold them here until they complete a certain number of workbooks, meetings (e.g. AA, NA, criminal thinking, etc.) or independent study courses. The idea is to focus upon growth to earn more privileges, not a certain amount of time until privileges are returned.

LEVEL TWO

Inmates are allowed full access to all prison facilities (e.g. recreation, library, commissary, chapel, etc.). They are also allowed to receive visits. In order to maintain Level 2 status, disciplinary issues must be minimal and a certain number of educational/ rehabilitative courses must be completed every 6 months.

In order to advance to Level 3, inmates must take on additional responsibility such as an institutional job, college-level studies, or enroll and complete a program of prolonged study.

LEVEL THREE

Inmates are allowed all Level 2 privileges, plus telephone usage, TV usage, plus extended commissary privileges (e.g. be able to buy a typewriter or a small TV for use in their cell) and less restrictive property, movement, and housing restrictions.

In order to maintain Level 3 status, disciplinary issues must be minimal, a certain number of educational/rehabilitative courses must be completed every 6 months, and a prolonged program of study must be commenced.

In order to advance to Level 4, inmates must go far out of their way to help others and must have - and maintain - superior academic attainment/standing. Think of those who earn a minimum of an Associate's degree, teach classes in the prison, or engage in superior levels of service to others.

LEVEL FOUR

Inmates are allowed all Level 3 privileges, plus computer/email usage, single cell occupancy, extended property allowances, and are allowed to move around the institution freely. The idea of this level of status is that it allows inmates to essentially live life as they would on the street, but inside prison. They would be able to craft employment plans for when they are to be released and even engage in employment to a certain degree (e.g. writing articles, manage a horticulture program, campus beautification, be on a board of inmate governors, etc.).

While these are all ideas which could enhance the operation of an institution, they would all promote healthy interactions, allow the inmate participants to practice healthy living skills prior to release, and allow the corrections' industry to really teach and fortify positive life skills and social skills. A model like this would place the focus upon self-improvement and professional development, not human warehousing or pacifying incarcerated populations until release.

I suppose if we want to see inmates do better, we must allow them the room to grow and the motivation (through rewards and sanctions) to do so. As long as we are complacent with the status quo - one which promotes little change and the kind of inmate who beats upon walls and screams for fun - we'll continue to promote nothingness and continue to see America's incarcerated population grow ad infinitum.

On the other hand, if we implement the fundamental changes which I've proposed, we might just surprise ourselves.