Both Sides of the Door: What Prison Education Brings to Staff and Incarcerated Individuals

April Mihalovich
March 30, 2021

Prison education has already proven to be effective at re-integration of incarcerated individuals into society. When implemented, they show decreased rates in recidivism as well as other prosocial behaviors post-release. Not only do education programs teach incarcerated individuals information they might not have had an opportunity to learn otherwise, but it also aims to provide them with useful life skills.

In addition to these benefits of prison education programs, there’s a lot we don’t know about the ways in which they are implemented and the positive effects they bring to the prison ecosystem. Recently I had the chance to interview two individuals with experience working in the corrections system. For the purpose of privacy, they’ll be referred to as “Larry” and “Jason.”

Larry no longer works in corrections, but his experience was working in a state prison with inmates on death row and at times from high-profile court cases. His main duties were to take custody of inmates and walk them around to eat, bathe, and back to lockup. Additionally, Larry would perform patrol duties and checks for contraband.

Jason continues to work as part of a correctional emergency response team, or CERT. In this position, Jason deals with hostile situations, combative inmates, and investigations. He spends long hours in close contact with inmates who are in close custody.

Given the personal nature of their jobs, both Larry and Jason have had the opportunity to view incarceration from a unique perspective. Since they are still free to leave at the end of their shifts, they do not have the same viewpoint as incarcerated individuals. However, working in close quarters in prison facilities has allowed Larry and Jason to observe prison conditions not publicized and see the true 24-hour reality for those who are incarcerated.

What is the reality of life in prison?

It is important to recognize that life in prison is not the same for any two people. Conditions vary across the country where climates change or facilities are not accessible. Because of the isolation experienced in prison, there’s a pressure to create and buy into a smaller culture, or “ecosystem.”

The world that exists inside correctional facilities is far different from life on the outside. Jason points out that there are so many unique innovations he’s seen on the job. He’s seen clothing washed in sinks and toilets as well as a cement block made out of tissues, soap, and toothpaste. Innovations like these show how resourceful and creative those within the prison ecosystem are forced to become due to the conditions in which they live.

On the flip side, Jason mentions how difficult it was “seeing an inmate go from working and cleaning in the front to turning into a complete drug addict - he was in a program starting to get an education and he fell into a slump of depression and reverted to drugs.” The pressure to sell and take drugs is immense, and further exacerbates any trauma or mental health issues an individual may have had before entering a facility.

How does this tie into education in prisons?

Many of us simply cannot fathom what we would do confined in a place with no access to outside media for entertainment or not much social interaction. Even people who have been incarcerated for a while feel the stress of having no purpose, nothing toward which they can put their skills. “Since there’s no outlets for skills, people are forced to rely on the same lifestyles that got them in prison,” observes Larry, “Even the small things like filing taxes, preparing a budget, a business plan. Mass incarceration plays into a cycle of people who go in as juveniles who spend their whole lives in the system and don’t learn skills.” Any correctional facility is full of individuals who are smart, talented, and savvy. However, many of these people who become incarcerated do not have the resources to hone these skills or were not given basic life lessons on how to use their talent in a prosocial way.

In addition to the challenges presented by poor resources and a lack of structure, incarcerated individuals also have to deal with the isolation that comes with policies like the “23 and 1.” Under this particular type of supervision inmates will be locked inside a small cell for 23 hours out of the day and left with 1 hour in which they are able to walk outside, use the library, or other activities outside of confinement while under staff supervision. For these people, a system of education is more difficult to implement.

Larry sees education as bringing a huge change to the lives of incarcerated individuals, even those serving their sentence in a 23 and 1 format. “Education can be easily implemented with tablets and computer labs and they can do something to learn or get their minds off of things. They can use their minds more productively - within that 1 hour they can soak up so much that they can spend their 23 productively reading and etc.” This perspective shows how to work with the policies in action at prisons while still setting up incarcerated individuals with tools they can use in a way that works with the life they live.

How do educational programs affect the lives of those working in corrections?

Both Larry and Jason have conducted their jobs with a great amount of empathy and care. They are able to see the conditions of prison life from their own perspectives, the perspectives of the inmates living it, and the perspectives of others working within the prison system. Taking the next steps in implementing education systems across prisons requires commitment from staff and incarcerated folks alike. As seen in last month’s article, “Fighting Implicit Biases in Education in the Criminal Justice System,” Dameon Stackhouse recalled how himself and his cohort, “Team Work-Hard,” excelled in their studies in order to ensure the education program would be available to those coming after them. In addition to this strong work ethic from those incarcerated, making programs work requires commitment from correctional staff.

Larry reflects that the biggest factor for bringing education to prisons is “accessibility and getting the population to these resources. Correctional officers see it as a task rather than something for the greater good - [they need to] invest in the big picture to deal with the minutiae of implementing the programs. CO’s do a thankless job and it’s a tradeoff to recognize the challenges in implementing technology. Prisoners want to learn, go home, get sentences reduced - if they work together, they can get people home sooner.”

Being a correctional officer in a prison facility is a challenging job that requires a lot of grit, emotion work, and long hours. As part of his job, Jason often has to diffuse violent fights and deal with situations in which his own life is in danger. These difficult elements of jobs as a correctional officer is why it’s important to consider the benefits of education programs for this population as well.

“Education will keep more peace - proving that this actually does happen is important and that engaging in these activities keep them away from violence and violent individuals,” Larry stresses the importance of talking about the benefits that such structure and programs bring to the prison ecosystem as a whole. By fostering an atmosphere that brings benefits to everyone involved, the relationship between those who are incarcerated and those working in the prison system will work more smoothly.

Jason also points out the opportunity these programs bring a positive light on the reputation of certain facilities. There are “opportunities for inmates to say ‘man this prison is sweet they have this,’ which gives certain facilities a good rap or a good reputation for people who get transferred.” When prison education programs are more of an anomaly than a norm, disruption of these programs is common. Larry mentions that “Each prison should have structure so inmates have access to something positive,” and that people can come close to earning a GED or higher education degree and then be transferred to a facility that does not have access to educational resources. Transferring between facilities can be disruptive, so being thoughtful about where incarcerated folks participating in an education program are transferred is a way to provide consistency and continued opportunities to complete a degree. That way, incarcerated folks are able to take full advantage of the programs provided.

Last Thoughts

Fostering opportunities for education is important not only for the individual parties involved, but for creating a more cohesive prison environment. Being focused on improving the day-to-day life for incarcerated individuals is the stepping stone to improving their lives in the future. Jason puts this eloquently: “Just because you’re behind those walls, it doesn’t mean life is over for you and you can’t make a second chance for yourself. Even though there’s negative, I see a lot of potential and promise. We can find different outlets to get them interested and see whose life you can change through the different opportunities for entrepreneurship. You have to [both] create more outlets for people in prison, and you have to treat them as people.”

Larry and Jason have brought humanity to their jobs, which is essential in working in corrections. Life is difficult for those incarcerated and those who work long hours isolated in prisons as well. Bringing both of these perspectives into the change that education can make in these facilities is essential.

Systems of education are not one-size-fits-all. Evaluating the needs, resources, and routines of each facility will ensure that the tools intended to make a difference in the lives of incarcerated individuals are working as such. Larry is correct in stating that “the outside doesn’t have visibility to this different world.” Listening to the needs of those working in facilities every day is the best way to improve how education is integrated into prison facilities.

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