Prison Education: A Convergence of Principles

By Kyle Barnhill

Certainly the prison education issue should be framed in the context of a battle for public opinion. Obviously politicians who influence and ultimately control prison-education policy are elected by the people: John Q. Public. So it makes sense that public sentiment regarding this issue must shift before meaningful change and progress may be made. And ironically, this can only occur one way: public education. Not public education in the sense of tax-funded education, but that of educating the public outside the classroom. Public persuasion. In essence, altering at least a small portion of their worldview. This isn't an easy task. But it is possible. 

And the premise of those who advocate educating inmates can be summed up in one metaphorical principle: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Research, studies, and hard numbers corroborate this claim when considering recidivism. There's no denying it. Education reduces recidivism and is vastly less expensive than incarceration.

Only the public doesn't know it.

Advocates of our position, however, should recognize that a multitude of other influences play a part in the battle for the public's heart-and-soul. There are a plethora of issues that potentially sway opinion on prison education. However, in the end it all comes under the broader issue of criminal-justice reform; it's logical that any related event or issue affects others. Bottom line, when any victory is had or progress is made in related matters, we should all take heart.

So when the Dallas Morning News recently published an editorial on shifting opinion in conservative-leaning-tough-on-crime Texas regarding across-the-aisle political cooperation to create a commission preventing wrongful convictions, people should applaud. This is a seismic shift in attitude, because tough on crime has become a stock Republican talking point. Even so, it's hard to imagine that includes “whether he did it or not."

From one perspective, this epiphany among conservative politicians in Texas would appear to be nothing more than common sense.  Who wants to destroy the lives of innocent people by sending them to prison for no reason? Nevertheless, when dealing with a certain mindset, such a philosophical epiphany is a miracle on the order of the bread and fishes. Yet, let's keep in mind that every journey begins with a single step. And interestingly, the article points out that the wrongful-conviction issue has gained traction in the Pea-Party movement. Not exactly the liberal epicenter of social justice by a long shot.

Why is this important? Because it confronts the public with a stark realization: maybe there are innocent people in prison. And one stark realization leads to another. The article concludes by declaring: "Justice for all obviously remains a work in progress. For too long it's been a political argument between right and left, when it should be a moral distinction between right and wrong."

If they're willing to concede this, we should be encouraged, because the same moral distinction applies to prison education. The public simply needs to know that there’s a simple and effective way to reduce recidivism.  In other words, John Q. Public needs to be educated about education.