[Marxism] Prison Program Turns Inmates Into Intellectuals

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jun 1 17:26:45 MDT 2014

NY Times, June 1 2014
Prison Program Turns Inmates Into Intellectuals

Otisville Correctional Facility is a medium-security state prison, 79 
miles northwest of Manhattan, on the site of a former tuberculosis 
sanitarium — with an equalizing element of portent, near the town of 
Mount Hope. Many of its prisoners are serving life sentences; they are 
men whom time, as one guard put it “has mellowed out.” Nearby, but 
unrelated, is the Otisville federal prison, named by Forbes Magazine as 
one of America’s “cushiest” incarcerators. Observers have likened it to 
a college, which is not an analogy you would easily draw at the state 
prison, where inmates rely largely on encyclopedias for the retrieval of 
information, in volumes that look as if they were last current when the 
nation was debating the merits of Dan Quayle.

Still, an intellectual firmament has taken hold. On a recent afternoon, 
10 men gathered under the tutelage of Baz Dreisinger, a professor of 
English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, to share some of their 
writing and to talk about the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire’s 
“Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” One of the students, Theron Smith, serving 
time on a second-degree murder conviction, noted that Freire’s work 
called to mind Hegel and the theory of double consciousness. Mr. Smith 
is an avid consumer of sociological texts; his longtime friend Rowland 
Davis, next to him in class that day, has immersed himself in theology. 
Another student had been creating an elaborately illustrated graphic novel.

In nearly every instance, when the men read from their own compositions, 
the writing was absorbing, learned and impeccable. All of the men had 
gained admission, through a competitive application process, to a 
program initiated by John Jay three years ago that allows prisoners who 
have high school diplomas or G.E.D.s, and who are eligible for release 
within five years, to amass college credits, and then when they leave, 
to complete degrees in the City University system. Ms. Dreisinger is the 
program’s academic director and founder, overseeing the teaching of art 
history, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison and so on. She is adamant 
about the instruction of grammar, which is why the men’s writing stands 
out even beside what you might find among students at elite high schools 
where a warning about dangling modifiers is often considered a benighted 
waste of time.

On the day I visited Otisville, another student, Devon Simmons, read a 
skillfully argued piece he wrote on the importance of financing prison 
education (which experienced an unfortunate reversal 20 years ago when 
inmates became ineligible for federal Pell grants), remarking that he 
and his fellow students at Otisville had managed to excel despite the 
absence of Power Point lectures and Wikipedia — most technology, 
especially Internet access, is forbidden. The essay won him an award in 
a writing contest in which he competed with traditional students at John 
Jay. (His sister accepted it for him.)

Despite the worthy case he was making, many members of the State 
Legislature opposed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan to include financing for 
prison education in his most recent budget, and the governor dropped it. 
Mr. Cuomo is now seeking private financing for the initiative.

For far too long we have thought about prison education almost 
exclusively in terms of the reduced recidivism it produces, which study 
after study has shown to be evident. But in some sense this is an 
inadequate metric and paradigm, neglecting the kinds of economic and 
social opportunities that are and should be available to prisoners who 
pursue and complete higher learning. As Ms. Dreisinger put it, “These 
guys reoffending is really the last thing I’m worried about.”

The more urgent and compelling question now is whether and how quickly 
they find work worthy of their achievements. The Bard Prison Initiative, 
begun in 1999, which provides a Bard College education to prisoners in 
New York State, has reported that two-thirds of program alumni are 
employed, finishing college degrees or enrolled in graduate school, 
including at New York University, Columbia and Yale. Most who are 
working are doing so in social service, which is also true of the 
graduates of another program in New York, known as College and Community 
Fellowship, that helps women leaving prison finish college.

If the discussion of prison education were reframed beyond the 
parameters of crime prevention, we might use it as a template for what 
teaching could look like in troubled communities more broadly. Max 
Kenner, the founder of the Bard program, told me that the prison 
students essentially “dive right in” to a curriculum similar to any they 
would encounter on an elite liberal arts campus. Remedial work is done 
concurrently; expectations are high.

A group of John Jay students, who had been meeting regularly with their 
Otisville counterparts and attended the same class I did, spoke of how 
all of their stereotypes of the incarcerated were undermined when they 
met the men in the program, which is not to ignore the seriousness of 
the crimes they had committed. They spoke of the broad-mindedness of the 
prisoners, the erudition they exhibited speaking in class, the striking 
references they made. Many of the visitors had come from city high 
schools where all of that was lacking, and in college they found few who 
shared that same spirit of inquiry.

“There are people I’m in school with,” one young woman told the class, 
“who don’t know when World War II happened.”

More information about the Marxism mailing list