human behavior

Recommended reading: the Ivy-League Prison

Posted in American Culture & Politics, Recommended Reading by humanb on November 17, 2009

There’s a fascinating New York Times article – College Ivy Sprouts at a Connecticut Prison – about Wesleyan University‘s foray into educating offenders at a maximum security prison. The prestigious school sends professors to the prison to teach the same courses taught on campus to drug-dealers, burglars, kidnappers and murderers – many of whom will die in jail.

It’s not a long piece, and it will quickly get you debating the rights and wrongs of the enterprise. While I sympathize with the criminals’ victims and respect their objections, I think this is a brilliant idea. It benefits all parties directly involved and untold others.

The Wesleyan students who travel to the prison for joint classes and the professors who teach there will no doubt develop a more nuanced understanding of life in prison, the variety of people who end up there, and the unique perspectives offenders may bring to the same subjects of study.

The obvious benefit to prisoners is the opportunity to expand their academic knowledge and to develop sophisticated critical thinking and writing skills. Those who ultimately leave prison will do so with skills and knowledge both useful to society and protective against reoffending.

The less obvious benefit in educating these men is their influence on other prisoners and the culture of prison itself. Many of these student-inmates will mature their perspectives on life, themselves, their fellow inmates and society. They’ll develop a stronger sense of self-worth and a new set of socially appropriate priorities. Who knows how many young men in prison they’ll inspire.

The best environment I could imagine for a criminal who will one day re-enter society, is an environment where education, self-reflection, critical thinking, self-discipline, and hard work are valued in and of themselves – even among those who will never see the outside of a cell.

If that’s not the kind of environment we want in our prisons, then we shouldn’t be calling them correctional.

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