Why Higher Education in Prisons Is Effective (Part 1)

By Ross Van Ness, Ed.D., Prof. Emeritus, Ball State University

A number of authors, including Dr. Jon Marc Taylor of Missouri, and Chris Zoukis of Virginia have done a more than adequate job of detailing the value of higher education to persons incarcerated in prisons. The reduction of recidivism, the contributions toward a career after release, and the shift in moral values resulting from higher education opportunities in prisons have been well documented. What has been less fully explained are the reasons higher education opportunities are so beneficial to offenders.

As a professor at Ball State University, I was privileged to teach in four different Indiana prisons over a twelve year period. In that span of time, I had a chance both to observe how the positive effects of higher education on prisoners occurred, and to talk with student-prisoners about their perceptions of how it provided value. To begin with, incarceration for many convicted felons, especially those between ages 17 and 25, is really a favor to those young offenders. As one young man stated: "Incarceration 'got my attention.' It forced me to stop and take a long, hard look at my life." Some convicted felons will simply use sentenced prison time to brood over their "misfortune" or "mistreatment," or spend their energies plotting how to "beat reconviction," while looking forward to a resumption of the lifestyle that led to their first prison term. Others, however- I believe as many as one-third to one half-begin to realize that they at least partially to blame for their offenses, and welcome an opportunity to use the available time to explore "how the world really works," or at least how the world can work, if the offender alters his/her values and attitudes.

Enter the experience of higher education. One student told me: "Before I entered the college program, I was a convict twenty-four hours a day. Now I am a "student" during the hours I am in class, and the hours I study or prepare assignments." Another said: "I always hated high school, because the teachers spent most of the time on discipline, control, and boring teaching methods. Most college professors, however, treat us like adults, and they don't just teach, they help us learn." Still another student confided: "I really never paid attention in school, and never really put forth much effort, because 1 was focused on all the great "things" I would do after school, and those "things" are what landed me here. But in prison, classes are the best part of the day. I pay attention, because classes are more interesting and enjoyable than what happens when I leave class, and because instructors treat me with more respect than the guards."