“Expanding College Opportunity in Our Nation’s Prisons”

For more than five years now, “expanding college opportunity in [one of] our nation’s prisons” has been my part time job, and it’s been my full-time job for the past year, since the JCI Scholars Program partnered with the University of Baltimore to offer courses towards a Bachelor’s degree in Community Studies and Civic Engagement as a part of the US Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative.

I visited the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor last week to participate on a panel with this title. I learned a lot from my co-panelists Erin Castro and Fred Patrick, but each of us were asked to prepare answers to the questions below so I thought I’d share those answers here.

If you had to describe the current relationship between higher education and prisons in one phrase, what would it be?

“Low hanging fruit:” College in prisons is the easiest and most obvious of a host of criminal justice reforms that we absolutely must be making and for which there is bipartisan support. We incarcerate 2.3 million people in the US, at a rate more than seven times higher than the global average. We’re not seven times more violent or larcenous than the rest of the world–perhaps we are seven times more racist, but even that isn’t clear any longer–so we need to fix this over-incarceration crisis. But for the time being, educating the people we incarcerate is almost literally the least we can do.

There is an eternal tension in higher education between the liberal arts and practical arts. Prison education programs often face this same tension. Based on your experiences, how has this divide manifested in prison education programs? Are there certain curricula that tend to receive broader support? How has this influenced your own work?

In the background here is that we don’t stop punishing people when they are released from prison. We continue to subject returning citizens to legal discrimination in employment, merely because of their status as previously-incarcerated.

There’s certainly good evidence that starting one’s own business is a good way to avoid employment discrimination. But most small businesses fail, and returning citizens face problems with raising startup capital that are just as onerous as their problems finding a job. 

In general, you can think of entrepreneurship as evidence that the ordinary labor market is absorbing workers too slowly: there is not sufficient labor market absorption for those currently unemployed, so they must instead go out and start small businesses of their own, taking considerably more risk with high rates of failure. We have not found meaningful work for many men and women, and we’re not willing to suspend our biases, and so we ask them instead to make their own.

Still, even in that context I see the liberal arts degree as superior. I think the data suggest that even for people who want a vocation, a liberal arts degree is the best investment. I’m partial to the philosophy major, myself: employment prospects and pay are better for the modal philosophy major than for the modal business administration major, because the liberal arts are techniques for problem solving, clear communication, and understanding difficult texts and situations. To achieve that, students need to learn to read hard books and write long papers for demanding professors.

Of course, the liberal arts are also–literally–techniques for freedom and for free people. So they’ve got that going for them, too, which is nice.

What are some of the ways in which prisoner education programs help prisoners identify and pursue educational opportunities upon reentry?

In some sense I think colleges have mastered a lot of the fundamentals of reentry because they are already basically institutions of ENTRY: colleges are pretty good at taking high school students and turning them into workers, and they’re also pretty good at preparing people who are accustomed to being dependents to live more independent lives. 

Our program at the University of Baltimore was built from the ground up with the ideal of having students transition from inside to outside while finishing their degree. Thus they’ll be able to use what is already a good transitional space, the university, to help accomplish that other kind of transition: reentry and return.

The audience today is full of current and future educators that may be considering how they can get involved with a prison education program. As you reflect on your own experiences, are there moments that stand out to you as particularly informative for those in the audience?

I started teaching a philosophy class and ended up running a program. There’s tremendous unmet demand among those 2.3 million incarcerated men and women for a college education. Be patient and persistent, recognizing the work comes before your ego, and find and cultivate collaborators.

We also have a lot of people here interested in research and policies that can shape prison education programs. What are the types of research questions the next generation of researchers should consider?

The GED test was once an important distinction, but it was basically devalued because it came to be associated with returning citizens, which is why they decided to raise the standards (to make it much more difficult and specifically to lower the pass rate) in 2014. Will something similar happen with our programs? Can we prevent that? 

Another important question has to do with selection effects. How much are we just finding the men and women who would have gone to university, if we didn’t live in a mass incarceration society? How much are we actually changing lives, adding value,” or changing the course of these men’s lives?

There’s very good reason–as Erin Castro reminded us during the panel–to look past the recidivism question: “We don’t evaluate a University of Michigan degree based on how likely its graduates are to later become incarcerated.” And while I do think that the recidivism statistics are awesome trump cards for the public policy debate, I would like to see my own program evaluated on other metrics, like student satisfaction, just as programs on the outside are evaluated.

Given the change in administration, should we be concerned about the future of the Second Chance Pell pilot program?

Of course we should be concerned! Yet Betsy DeVos has not, to my knowledge, commented on the Second Chance Pell experiment. It’s notable that she is also primarily devoted to school choice in K-12, which is literally modeled on Pell, a grant program that supplies school choice for higher education.

If this becomes a partisan issue, I don’t expect it to survive. But I’d like to think it won’t become partisan, that there’s still enough bipartisan support for this because it’s such low-hanging fruit, because the evidence makes it common-sense. If you’re committed to small government, you like prison education. If you’re committed to social justice, you like prison education. What else can you think of that the Koch brothers agree with George Soros about?

“That man who has nothing to lose:” Black Americans and Superfluousness

Long before white Americans felt like their society had abandoned them, Black Americans knew the feeling. Just like whites do today, some Black Americans responded to earlier superfluousness by “clinging to guns and religion” to use Barack Obama’s famous analysis. (cf. Kinsley gaffe) Here’s James Baldwin, describing the Nation of Islam:

“I’ve come,” said Elijah, “to give you something which can never be taken away from you.” How solemn the table became then, and how great a light rose in the dark faces! This is the message that has spread through streets and tenements and prisons, through the narcotics wards, and past the filth and sadism of mental hospitals to a people from whom everything has been taken away, including, most crucially, their sense of their own worth. People cannot live without this sense; they will do anything whatever to regain it. This is why the most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose. You do not need ten such men—one will do. And Elijah, I should imagine, has had nothing to lose since the day he saw his father’s blood rush out—rush down, and splash, so the legend has it, down through the leaves of a tree, on him. But neither did the other men around the table have anything to lose. –James Baldwin, “Down At The CrossLetter from a Region in my Mind

Baldwin was no fan of Elijah Muhammed’s movement, but he tries to understand it and he seems to sympathize. And what he calls out in these lines is an overriding sense of loss–one that can justify any effort or sacrifice to overcome. That loss of worth, which Baldwin wants to depict as something much deeper than “self-esteem,” is tied not to airy questions of recognition but to material harms and embodied injuries: frisks and kicks by “legitimate” authority that go unanswered, murdered fathers that go unmourned by white society.

Baldwin even interprets the turn to Islam as a turn away from Christianity’s whiteness–from the forgiveness that it seems constantly to demand from white supremacy’s victims.

Today I know more Black Muslims than Arab ones, but mostly they’re imprisoned. And that, too, is a form of superfluousness: of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the US, 40% are Black, even though Blacks make up only 13% of the population.

PPI 2016 race

It’s hard not to see imprisonment of African-Americans as primarily a reaction to their enforced superfluousness. Labor market prejudices create a circumstance where unemployment rates for African-Americans are roughly double the rates for whites, at every education level. My students believe (and I agree) that the War on Drugs is largely a war on Black participation in the black labor market. (Recall the Ice Cream truck war of the summer which helps explain how police and the courts can make black markets less or more violent.) It’s an attempt to foreclose available forums for Black entrepreneurship. It’s notable that as marijuana legalization proceeds state-by-state it begins in white places, and the new profits and businesses are primarily white-owned.

To be rendered superfluous is a particularly odd phenomenon, and at least in the formulation I’ve lately been thinking about, it seems uniquely tied to relative deprivations of status and respect. I want to believe that respect and recognition matter less than life or health. We all have things we could lose, and honor is the least of these.

But that’s simply not how people act. Flourishing matters to most people more than survival, and flourishing requires a community of esteem. It requires reputation and character assessments, it requires that the agents of the state give you equal protection and don’t target you as a unique threat.

Some parts of Black America responded to superfluousness by clinging to god and guns, but for the most part African-Americans responded by becoming the center of cultural attention. There’s little argument that Black culture simply is American culture at this point, as almost all of our distinctively American institutions and cultural traditions are shot-through with Blackness even if it is unacknowledged. Baldwin charged that even myths of Black laziness or violence serve an important function in White America: they are our “fixed star” and moving out of their place of subordination would shake our “heaven and earth… to their foundations.”

Yet whites don’t seem to be willing to create their own economies of esteem in this way. Something–perhaps supremacy itself–has rendered them too lazy, too dependent on long-lost tradition and long-gone cultural victories. Consider Katherine Cramer’s formulation: rural Wisconsinites resent that the urban centers have deprived them of “power, money, and respect.” But they’re simply wrong: they’ve seen no real deprivations of power or money compared to Black Americans. It’s certainly true that they receive less respect than they used to get, less deference and less cultural attention. But this is a downfall from absolute supremacy and literal enslavement–enforced by rule of law. We have a long way to go before we aren’t still reaping what WEB Du Bois called “psychic wages” of white supremacy. (I prefer to call them psychic dividends, since it’s important that they are not a reward for work, but rather like a racial trust fund.)

How much should that matter? In my heart, I want to believe that people with a surplus of money, power, and respect should share. And I want to believe that it’s not a finite resource, that more souls can and will produce more of each if they’re not forced into superflousness. I think of Malcolm X, whose industriousness and self-invention could not be halted or stultified by racism or even Elijah Muhammed’s theocratic nonsense, only assassinated. But that’s where my analysis is probably wrong: when people have the money and power, they’re well-placed to demand the respect or punish its absence.

For Education, Against Credentialism

Today I’ll be addressing a group of imprisoned students, university administrators, and prison officials to inaugurate the University of Baltimore’s partnership with the US Department of Education and Jessup Correctional Institution to offer Bachelor’s Degrees. We have a few tasks today, including inspiring the students and encouraging the officials that their support for the program is not a betrayal of their other constituents. Here’s what I plan to say:

It’s well-known that receiving a college degree improves life outcomes. The standard claim is that getting a Bachelor’s Degree is worth an extra million dollars in income over a person’s lifetime, but even this is hard to predict as the returns to education are increasing. In 1965, a person with a college degree only made $7,500 more per year than a person without one. This is called the college wage premium: in 2013, that college wage premium had increased to $17,500. Since it’s increasing, it’s likely that a college degree today will be worth even more than a million dollars over a lifetime.

What’s more, college graduates are healthier, have lower unemployment rates and shorter periods of unemployment. They are more likely to have happy marriages and less likely to be divorced; they are less likely to be incarcerated, and even live longer.

Thus it seems like a pretty good investment. But there is very little clear connection between studying Civil War history or the anthropology of upland Southeast Asia and doing the sorts of jobs that college graduates end up doing. What’s more, there’s a phenomenon called the “sheepskin effect” which shows that most of the college wage premium comes from completing school, rather than along the way. Half or even 90% of a college degree does very little to increase your income, while finishing that last course can make a big difference.

College, then, seems to serve more as a signal of ability and conscientiousness than as training in necessary skills. Employers are paying for smart and hardworking staff, and a college degree is a reliable signal of those qualities. And indeed in college campuses throughout the country we see evidence that this is true: no one thinks that a cheater or a plagiarist is “only cheating himself,” they worry that he has an unfair advantage. The grade matters more than the work, it seems, which is also why students seek out “easy As” and rejoice when class is canceled. And many students readily engage in “cramming” for exams knowing that they will not retain the material in the long-term. (I owe these examples to Bryan Caplan, though they now seem almost too obvious to attribute.)

Calling it “signaling” is mostly an economic exercise, but educational researchers can see it at work in different ways, all of which indicate that there is not enough emphasis on learning. Educational sociologists call it the “disengagement compact,” a bargain struck between faculty and students in which both agree: “I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.” Teachers agree to be entertaining and undemanding, and in exchange students agree to pay their tuition without complaint and give the faculty good teaching evaluations. Both thus have more time for other endeavors.

I believe that imprisoned students do not have the luxury of the disengagement compact. If we accept the signaling theory then a period of incarceration is a severe signal to potential employers: it is a signal that you are more likely than not to go back to prison. At best, a degree serves to distinguish some formerly incarcerated returning citizens from the rest, to deepen the prejudice against some returning citizens in favor of others.

Thankfully, it turns out that people do sometimes learn useful skills in college. Education can be transformative. A rigorous liberal arts education that focuses on reading difficult texts, solving complicated problems, and writing and speaking clearly about matters of little direct concern can help teach the skills that employers want more than any other:

  • critical thinking
  • analytic reasoning
  • problem solving
  • clear written and oral communication

And research on college learning outcomes suggests that a liberal arts education can teach these skills so long as the classes require a lot of reading (forty pages a week), a lot of writing (twenty pages a semester), and the professor has high expectations of the students. Which is encouraging, because it means that we can break out of the merely competitive cycle.

I have a theory as to why this works, that comes from the educational advocate Earl Shorris. His Clemente course in the humanities inspired Bard College’s Prison Initiative, which inspired the US Department of Education, who took a chance on us here. In his book Riches for the Poor, Shorris argues that one major factor in poverty is the stultifying character of one’s problems and environment. Shorris offers the analogy of Native American hunting practices, where hunters would encircle their prey and then move in, creating anxiety and fear that aids the hunter in capturing stunned prey. Poverty and prison both offer similar “surrounds of force” whereby individuals are beset by so many forces (“hunger, isolation, illness, landlords, police, abuse, neighbors, drugs, criminals, and racism”) that they do not know where to turn.

An education in the liberal arts gives us the crucial pause we need to avoid confusion and find an escape route. The “pause” is a performative skill, like learning to fix a car or perform a surgery. Anyone could do it at any time, but learning to pause when we’re stressed is actually extremely difficult. We need to learn to reflect. And it isn’t just enough for a professor to tell you: “reflect!” Just as you can’t just tell an illiterate person, “read!” or a clumsy person who has never learned, “ride that bike! A highly rigorous and engaged liberal arts degree offers its students an opportunity to train in important meta-cognitive habits. Education is not something the teacher does to the student, it’s something the student does to himself, with the professor’s guidance.

To sum up:

Education may just be about signaling. If so, let’s signal loud and clear how amazing you guys are! But there’s a good deal of evidence that education can be transformative, even if your professors can’t transform you, exactly. You have to transform yourself with their help.

We will set out the guidelines. You will meet our (VERY HIGH) expectations. If the educational sociologists are right, this will give you an opportunity to develop the habits and skills that employers want and need. And if Shorris is right, maybe you’ll develop inner peace along the way. If you see a professor giving you too much slack, ask: does she believe in the transformative value of education? Or is he just here to collect a paycheck and hand out sheepskins?

Demand transformation.

Civic Death and the Afterlife of Imprisonment

It’s primary season, and once again I am reminded at just how little the rest of the country cares about the disenfranchisement of the District of Columbia. I usually salve my irritation with the knowledge that individual votes are unlikely to sway an election, so I am largely unharmed personally. The problem, of course, is that the disenfranchisement of a large group of people who share some interests does seem likely to have serious policy effects, as those interests are systematically ignored. (Perhaps a more powerful argument defending the loss of DC’s voting rights in federal matters is that it might force us to attend to local politics where decisions are both consequential and close enough to our lives to be noticed. So far, though, I am unimpressed.)

In any case, my neighbors and I are not alone. Vann Newkirk has a piece in the Atlantic challenging felon and prisoner disenfranchisement:

The origins of disenfranchisement as a vehicle of American punishment are likely traceable to some form of the classical notion of a “civil death.” For the Greeks, the punishment of civil death was akin to capital punishment—a complete extinguishing of the civil rights that Greeks believed constituted personhood, including suffrage, landownership, and the right to file lawsuits. English common law borrowed the Greek concept, and civil death was long viewed as a suitable punishment for felony offenses.

But civil death as a formal punishment in the American colonies differed from the English system on which it was based, and from the punishments that would later evolve. Civil death was initially only adopted in America for a very small number of felonies, the most common of which were violations directly connected to voting—for example, fraud or bribery. This paralleled both an expansion of crimes considered felonies and a decoupling of felony punishment from capital punishment. The use of long-term imprisonment, instead of corporal or capital punishment, only came about in fits and starts.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In Maryland, former felons are regaining their voting rights this year, and that affects some of the graduates of the JCI Prison Scholars Program! It’s pretty great.

For too long, we have begun to imagine that violators of the social contract are somehow unable to participate in its revision. In a world without ungoverned spaces, it’s no longer possible to exile our trangressors into the wastes. But what we do instead is significantly more cruel: exiled to social and civil death, prisoners are meant to continue to live in our midst while occupying as little of our time and energy as possible. They’re invisible men whose future is supposed to hold no future except to be ignored.

Yet the fantasies of social death are pernicious precisely because they imagine no return. The reality is that most of these men must someday rejoin the communities from which they have been exiled. People come back. What’s more, they’re never really that far away.

Their lives and ours are still bound together: at the very least we still pay to keep our fellow citizens incarcerated, we still send some of our fellow citizens inside to guard and “correct” them. But it’s also worth remembering that the prison’s walls are remarkably permeable. Guards and visiting family stream in and out. Gang members inside help their outside colleagues agree to cessation of hostilities.

If we were still able to punish our criminals with exile or death, it would be much easier. Instead ghosts still haunt us long after their social death. Fathers and mothers still parent their daughters and sons from within the prison’s walls. Husbands have long arguments and tender reconciliations with their wives as phone calls and letters go back and forth at great expense. And in most cases, the men and women who go off to prison must eventually shamble back from the social death we’ve wished upon them.

I still don’t know if there’s room for prisons in a just society. Our vengeful impulses seem to require some sort of satisfaction, and imprisonment might just be the fairest one remaining. But I do feel confident that those prisons cannot be premised on social death any longer.

Thursday Links, Agglomerated

  1. Nathan Smith: “American egalitarianism is a sheltered creed that needs the border as blindfold to retain its limited plausibility as an ideal.”
  2. Literary Magazines for Socialists funded by the CIA, ranked (Partisan Review is #3)
  3. Pope Francis to visit a Pennsylania prison and call for reform in Congress.
  4. Michael Rosen: I sometimes fear that people might think that fascism arrives in fancy dress worn by grotesques and monsters as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis. Fascism arrives as your friend. It will restore your honour, make you feel proud, protect your house, give you a job, clean up the neighbourhood, remind you of how great you once were, clear out the venal and the corrupt, remove anything you feel is unlike you…It doesn’t walk in saying, “Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”
  5. W. H. Auden: “There were two kinds of machinery for separating the slime, one I thought more beautiful than the other, but the other one I knew to be more efficient. I felt myself faced with what I can only call a moral choice—it was my duty to take the second and more efficient one. Later, I realized, in constructing this world which was only inhabited by me, I was already beginning to learn how poetry is written.”
  6. Tax preparers lobby for more complicated taxes.