Friday, June 5, 2009

Prison Education

The Utah Legislature has mandated a change in prison education. Over the past few years prisoners could take courses that pointed them towards an Associate's Degree. The legislature changed that focus, and beginning on October prison education will be focused on trade skills (and substantially more expensive for prisoners.)

The move raises all sorts of questions, but perhaps the largest one is about the transformative power of education. Our popular culture is full of films in which inspiring teachers lead marginal students to embrace education and remake their lives (Stand and Deliver being the most famous.) And some prisons offer programs that do provide transformative experiences for prisoners. (See, for example, the Prison Dharma Network and Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship.) These transformative programs tend to focus on religion, though, or at least the power of a religious organization to provide structure and meaning for prisoners.

Defenders of the traditional liberal arts make the transformative claim for their content and approach to education. Utah's prison system, though, seems uninterested in these claims, favoring (in the past) a generic general education, or (in the future) job training. So, several questions:
  • Is transformative education only for non-prisoners?
  • Where does "transformation" lie on the hierarchy of human needs? Is the creation of a sense of self and humanity a luxury that comes after employment, or a necessity, that gives meaning to employment?
  • Does the State of Utah (or any other state) care about transforming the lives of prisoners, if only for practical reasons, ie reducing recidivism?
  • Is the State giving any thought to the prisons as a system, that is as an organization that has to provide a range of options if it hopes to rehabilitate real people?
  • Where are Utah institutions of higher education on this question? Is our rhetoric about the power of education ultimately too expensive to implement?

1 comment:

derek bitter said...

This is a disappointing shift in prison education. But I wonder, Are there any educators educating our politicians about education? I don't know that they would listen, but I wonder if they asked.