Education Behind Bars

The following is a guest blog post from Lauren Kessler, author of A Grip of Time: When Prison Is Your Life. Enter to win a final copy before May 31st and receive an exclusive promo code when you sign up for our monthly newsletter. Lauren's newest book, A Grip of Time, is now available wherever books are sold. 

Prison inmates are among the least-educated people in America.

About 40 percent haven’t graduated from high school. (In some states and with certain populations, the number is much, much higher—as high as 80 percent.)

In prison, one of the most effective rehabilitation tools is…that’s right: education. Research, and lots of it, shows that educational opportunities and achievement behind bars keeps people from coming back to prison. (95 percent of all prisoners are eventually released. Within 5 years, 75 percent of them are back in jail.) If you release someone with the same skills with which they came in, they’re going to get involved in the same activities as they did before.

It’s not “just” the acquisition of skills that makes classes in prison a good idea. It is the experience of being in a stimulating environment, of taking part in spirited discussion, of learning to think critically, of reading, of exposure to new ideas, new worlds. Education does far more than make a person employable.

So education should be a cornerstone of programming in prison, right?

Of course.

But so very little money is spent on any programming in prison--approximately 6 percent of corrections spending is used to pay for all prison programming—that educational opportunities are sparse. (There are notable, exceptionable programs like Hudson Link, the Education Justice Program, and the Bard Prison Initiative.)

It’s been said that offering classes to inmates is being “soft on crime.” But if getting an education makes it far more likely that a released felon can make a decent, non-criminal life, then offering classes inside is actually being TOUGH on crime. It prevents future crime.

We have an incarceration crisis. We have a re-entry crisis. Everyone, regardless of politics, agrees. In-prison education can help. So can reversing the 1994 ban on allowing inmates to apply for Pell grants that make education affordable to low-income students.

We hear only about the grim life behind bars, the violence, the drugs, the gangs. But there is something else going on. There is a real hunger to learn, to read and talk, to reach beyond the bars and walls, to imagine a new life. I know this first hand. I’ve been working with a group of convicted murderers at a maximum security prison. We read, we write, we discuss. It is not a formal class. But it is education. And I think—I hope—it is making a difference.

Photo of Lauren Kessler

About the Author

Lauren Kessler is an award-winning author and immersion reporter who combines lively narrative with in-the-trenches research to explore hidden worlds and make the invisible, visible. She is the author of ten works of narrative nonfiction. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, O Magazine, salon.comUtne Reader, the Nation, and elsewhere. An international speaker and workshop leader, she teaches nonfiction storytelling in the U.S. and abroad. She lives with her family in western Oregon. Stay connected with Lauren online on her blogauthor website, and on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Lauren's newest book,  A Grip of Time: When Prison Is Your Lifeexplores forgiveness and blame that are at the heart of the American penal system as she delves into the lives of eight men, all convicted murderers, serving life sentences in a maximum security prison.