Prison Education as a Tool for Socialization

By Christopher Zoukis

Generally, crime is a violation of generally agreed upon societal norms that have been codified into law via criminalization.  The concept is that society has deemed certain actions to be acceptable and others to be unacceptable, and when someone violates a social norm we expect that they will be chastised.  This chastisement maintains the agreed-upon social order in our nation and throughout the world.  It is meant to be an act of correction to the individual who violated the norm and a warning to the rest of us concerning the action at hand.  Image courtesy www.tjjd.texas.gov

MINOR FORMS OF CHASTISEMENT: SOCIAL CRITIQUES

Some forms of chastisement aren't so bad.  For example, a friend voicing his disagreement, a teacher giving a low grade, a parent grounding their child as a show of disapproval are relatively minor forms.  All of these, while unpleasant, allow the person in question to reflect upon their actions, correct them, and go on with life again.  The person being chastised is not hindered from living their life, though they will benefit via the reminder of their correction.  Hence, in theory, their future behavior should conform to the level, kind, and motivation of the correction, and they will behave as society desires the next time around.  This is a primary goal of chastisement.

MAJOR FORMS OF CHASTISEMENT: INCARCERATION AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

Other forms of chastisement are much worse.  Incarceration and capital punishment come to mind; motivational penalties severe enough to lock the person away for a period of time or to actually take his or her life.  These forms of punishment, as with the lesser forms, serve to correct the individual and provide others with proof of the punishment.  They also serve as a cautionary tale and establish a boundary that others must not cross.  The difference, though, is that neither of these methods of correction allows the offender to easily reintegrate back into general society.  Capital punishment is final because death is the end.  The other does not because the offender is labeled a criminal -- a "felon" -- for the rest of his or her life, sometimes with significant consequences, i.e., the conundrum of felon disenfranchisement laws which employ a variety of limitations on American citizenship and its benefits to former wrongdoers.

The problem with the latter, more extreme form of correction is that the system is built solely to punish, not to allow the prisoner to return to society unabated.  This causes the prisoner to suffer additional punishment and almost permanent stigmatization.  While this may seem beneficial to victims of crime, it doesn't contribute to a reduction in crime or the prisoner's rehabilitation.  American society is dichotomous about crime, professing a desire for crime reduction, yet promoting crime with "tough-on-crime" criminal justice policies.  The same policies that fill the prisons and unduly revoke ex-prisoners' terms of parole and supervised release, without fostering an environment where the ex-prisoner can succeed in life outside of prison, driving the ex-prisoner back into the role of the criminal or outcast.  This promoted cycle helps neither citizen nor (former) wrongdoer.

 

ANTICIPATORY SOCIALIZATION: PRISON-STYLE

As with children, a method of anticipatory socialization is needed for those who break societal rules.  In children, this anticipatory socialization is aimed at preparing the child for life as an adult.  For prisoners, this anticipatory socialization is aimed at preparing the prisoner for their eventual return to the general society.  The problem is often that prisoners sit inside facilities geared only toward incapacitation, and are denied any means of healthy, productive growth.  As such, the only change to the prisoner's psyche or mentality is often a direct result of the harsh prison environment they find themselves confined in: they become more hardened and angry, not open nor willing to changing their troublesome ways.

The concept of anticipatory socialization is one which inherently retains the idea of progress and/or development.  The child is assisted in developing into a well-adjusted and able adult.  The prisoner is assisted in learning new skills, reforming their problematic ways, and learning -- and becoming dedicated to -- what it takes to succeed in a world without bars or guards.  In both examples, the individual being assisted is seen almost as the patient.  This is a correct analogy.  However, for the child, we as a society are more than willing to help assist in the process, but for the prisoner, we often, rather curiously, view assistance to them as an indicator that we don't care about our neighbor.  This concept of right and wrong is illogical and inherently incorrect, because it fails to realize a simple truth: if we don't provide any particular group with the tools and training needed to succeed, they will fail regardless of the circumstances.  This is as true of prisoners as it is of children, learning disabled individuals, and the mentally ill.

PRISON EDUCATION: CORRECTIONAL ANTICIPATORY SOCIALIZATION AT ITS BEST

A cost-effective method of providing this anticipatory socialization is correctional education: education provided in prison (academic, vocational, or other).  Almost any learned person will agree that the pursuit of education is a means of healthy, pro-social growth, and the same is true not only outside the prison environment, but inside it, too.  By allowing prisoners to grow through education they will be able to not only compete in the job market upon release, but be afforded the opportunity to change their criminal mentality and motivations, to alter the very trajectory of their life through healthy and realistic goals and the application thereof.

By studying sociology, for example, the prisoner can come to a better understanding of his or her social class and thus better understand their own role in it, and perhaps even why he or she engaged in the actions which brought them to prison in the first place.  Likewise, an English course can afford prisoners the skills needed to convey their thoughts and feelings in an appropriate manner.  These are only two limited examples of the potential benefits of prison education.

In more macro terms, education is a catalyst to pro-social growth.  Regardless of if the inmate is reading about Chaucer or the founding fathers of our nation, the mere act of reading and engaging in a strenuous program of study makes a real difference.  By showing up day after day to study, by learning about a variety of subjects, and by watching oneself succeed after struggle, the very wrongdoer who went to prison can emerge something better, as someone who doesn't take from their community, but instead gives back.  The transformation can be startling in some cases and shows the true, useful power of education.  This transformation is proven through a variety of studies which show that education significantly reduces recidivism rates, and thus crime.

PRISON EDUCATION: A TOUGH SELL TO THE AMERICAN PEOPLE

Educating prisoners is a tough sell.  The average American is already so economically overburdened that the idea of providing a free education to the prison population is to some, dubious.  When added to the 2008-2009 recession, it becomes almost absurd.  By looking at prison education in a strictly economic context, the meat of the issue can be easily overlooked.  The issue isn't about educating prisoners.  It's about re-socializing and retraining them so that they don't return to prison.  It's about ensuring that they have some kind of marketable skill.  It's about providing necessary tools to enable the prison population to break the cycle of crime and incarceration.  It's about protecting American men, women, and children in the most economically sound fashion possible.  None of this looks like the "coddling of criminals" so often decried in some circles.

Lest we get too far away from the research, providing education to prison inmates is not a foolhardy approach to recouping corrections' costs.  Education costs close to one-tenth the cost of incarceration.  Yet, it is substantially more effective at reducing recidivism than incarceration alone.  If we didn't mind the cost, incarceration -- better thought of as incapacitation in this regard -- would be the solution.  But prisoners do eventually get released.  As such, they have to be reprogrammed to live in our society without breaking the rules or the laws.  Incarceration doesn't solve the cause or problem of crime, education does (either pre-potential crime or post-crime).  It's time for American citizens to stop supporting a bloated corrections system which doesn't correct and start supporting measures which actually do.  This must be done regardless of the cost -- even though, in this circumstance, the solution costs a fraction of the existing rate for a broken system which fails to fulfill its purpose.

FROM CRIMINAL TO CITIZEN: A RADICAL TRANSFORMATION

If we as a nation want ex-prisoners to avoid turning back to the criminal lifestyle, we need to remove the barriers to becoming law-abiding citizens.  Toward this end, there are many steps that must be taken and many avenues that must be cleared.  Many of these measures have to do with restorative justice, where we first punish the rule breaker, then allow him or her back into society and encourage them to succeed.  The problem with not educating the incarcerated is we'll eventually have to release them from prison.  When this happens, the prisoners come out worse off than when they went in, thus leaving us, and our communities, vulnerable to more crime.  In effect, we're allowing more citizens to be victims by not proactively rehabilitating, educating, and training incarcerated rule breakers.

The answer here is simple: educate the incarcerated.  Find ways to employ them in lower-skill jobs which allow for a steady, sustainable lifestyle, while fulfilling basic needs of the American infrastructure through a ready supply of hard workers.  And encourage them to be good stewards of American citizenship.  If they feel as though they are not welcome, they will not be involved in neighborhood activities, the academic lives of their children, or other social groups to which they should involve themselves.  Once they feel welcome -- and good in their own skin -- they can come out of their shell, contribute to whatever society they might be a part of, and perhaps never return to the criminal lifestyle which leads back to prison.

RESOCIALIZATION THROUGH PRISON EDUCATION

Prisoners need to be re-socialized through education so that upon their release they're no longer a threat to society.  When we stop punishing them and allow them to succeed, they'll be able to get out and stay out.  They'll become an asset to the communities to which they return.  After a period of time and re-socialization through education, the number of recidivists will dwindle until our system starts showing net gains, not losses.  Only then will the never-ending cycle of crime be broken.  Then, we as a nation can save the tens of billions of dollars we spend on corrections every year and finally put an end to the steadily increasing cost of victimization.