In our current penal system, some individuals, like Shon Hopwood, hear their song echoing quietly down those long, concrete hallways, and follow it to a better life. But spend three years teaching vocational and higher education inside the walls of the Washington State Penitentiary and it will look pretty obvious to you that regardless of any stated mission, vision, values and goals of the system, the open and notorious goal is simply to keep the inmates sequestered and separated from the general population. And this is what we taxpayers want. This is a fear-generated paradigm; members of the community outside the walls want to feel safe, so felons are incarcerated for increasingly long periods of time in order to remove the perceived threat from society at large. There is no penitence being sought here, no improvement in the human condition, certainly no real attempt at rehabilitation, at least not with public money.
However, most of these guys and gals are eventually released, with the same level of thinking they had when they entered the system, likely more jaded and angry toward society, also likely to have been coached and trained on how to be a more effective criminal.
There are a few, a tiny band of brothers and sisters, who find, within the walls, as Shon Hopwood did, a haven, a sanctuary and a new way of thinking, and when these few emerge from our system, they are new people, productive members of society, people doing good work and raising good children, making our sometimes shabby world a better place.
That haven is actually two prongs of a three-pronged miracle fork that pokes and prods ‘offenders’ into a way of living that largely ruins their old ways of thinking. The three prongs, the most effective (by far) reducers of dreaded recidivism are: (1) age, (2) a spiritual program and (3) higher education.
Not even the current and catchy “evidenced-based programming” (more talk therapy) can come close to the effectiveness of something as simple as guys and gals just getting older and wiser and more tired of spending most of their life locked up.
Hopwood spent 12 years in Federal prison and now he’s a Gates scholar at Washington State Law school with a prestigious internship lined up. Certainly his story is exceptional, but only in that he’s been able to stand up and be noticed. Shon would be the first to admit that he’s just an ordinary guy who got lucky in that he found education and sobriety within the walls of Federal prison.
We can’t do anything about the effect of aging, but we can and should offer plenty of opportunities for education and spirituality. Either one alone though is only half a recipe. There is a synergy between the conjoined two that creates the kind of effectiveness that Shon and others have experienced. Any alcoholic or drug addict will tell you that knowledge, whether it be knowledge of one’s self, or of one’s disease or of the world, does nothing to curb the addiction. Only a strong spiritual program has ever been known to keep that monster at bay. And spirituality without education becomes dogma and narrowness of vision. Our citizens must become students of the world, both of the physical and of the meta-physical, in order to become whole, functioning, contributing members.
Empirically it is clear that higher education and spiritual programs are highly effective at reducing recidivism; however, the state of Washington is forbidden by law from providing higher education inside the walls. So far, it’s been the generosity and far-sighted altruism of one or two magnanimous individuals who have been funding the Associate of Arts degree and vocation education programs within the walls of the otherwise cloistered carceral industry in our state. As an instructor, I get to see gang members, heroin addicts, kids that have known nothing but poverty and all kinds of the rag-tag edges of our society turn into thoughtful, ambitious and more confident and happier citizens. They learn economics, speech and debate, writing, literature, business, art and a host of other subjects, and they learn the joy of learning, how to learn, and the bigger picture of their community and their universe. It is a gratifying and exhausting vocation, this teaching within the walls, but clearly this is the kind of programming that makes a difference, not just in these lives, but in the lives of everyone they touch when the leave the penitentiary and take on lives outside the walls.
Most of the inmates are now required to pass their GED once they enter the iron gates. However, that basic level of education, necessary as it is, is not statistically significant in reducing recidivism, and only about ten percent of the prison appears to be actively engaged in higher education, despite the fact that they have hours and hours and hours of time on their hands. Plenty of time for penitence. And homework. I’d like to see our incarcerated population punished relentlessly with college-level classes and spiritual programming.
Also, we spend way more money on each prisoner for food and housing, without any education or programming, than we do on public education per student. It’s time we put funds into education within the carceral industrial complex in a real, significant, meaningful way. We need a wide variety of education, not just more talk therapy about the negative effects of drugs and alcohol, not just more classes on anger management and family dynamics (although those are necessary too) but more classes on theater and music, calculus and business, graphic design and marketing. We should be offering an entire liberal arts degree for these displaced members of society. Free education as punishment? I say, yes.
I like to think of myself as a punisher, a dispenser of a higher form of justice, higher in the sense of higher education anyway. I torture my students with relentless articles, tomes of reading materials, heady textbooks, verbal projects, written assignments, research papers and op/eds, study guides, tests, class discussions and debates, and I’m endlessly thankful to those few who fund our work, and adamant about opening the eyes of society to the great justice that we can undertake by changing the way we think about our people inside.
1. In The Healing Wisdom of Africa, Somé talks about the villagers’ excitement when they hear a woman is pregnant: “Everyone asks, "Why is this person being sent to us at this time? What gifts will this person have that our community needs?" A special ritual is held to answer these questions. Expert shamans gather with the mother of the foetus and place her under hypnosis. They contact the life-force behind the foetus, asking why it is coming into the world and what work it intends to do. The foetus responds in ways that suggest that the individual has first presented a proposal for his or her life purpose to some council of elders in the Spirit World. Once the Council approves the proposal, it gives the individual permission to be born into a physical body.”