Shortly after 10:00 a.m. every weekday, inmates line up at a South Florida prison to gain access to the education building. Once cleared by the control room, they walk single file to the right of the yellow line that runs the length of the compound, clutching blue folders. They are on their way to a writing class. For the two hours they are there, they will reside in a world that encourages, rather than penalizes them for expressing their individuality.
The need for education inside our justice system is real. As you may already know, the United States houses five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. The prison population in the United States has increased 500 percent over the last 30 years. Incarceration has become our society’s de facto responses to poverty, substance abuse, and inadequate health care; yet prison simply exacerbates these problems. According to a 2014 RAND study, four in ten U.S. prisoners return to prison within three years of their release; however “strong evidence [indicates] that correctional education plays a role in reducing recidivism.”
Thankfully, prisoners who participate in literacy programs are 43 percent less likely to recidivate and 13 percent more likely to get a job. Participation improves relations with other inmates and staff, and strengthens their relationships with their family members. It improves inmates’ self-discipline, self-esteem, and self-respect. Attending classes reduces disciplinary infractions and helps transform personal identities from what the professionals label “pro-criminal” to what we educators term “pro-social,” which, in non-jargon, means inmates start identifying as law-abiding citizens rather than as law-breakers.
Despite these documented advantages, state funding cuts have left prisons across the country without solid literacy programs. The consequence of increasing budgetary cuts for in-prison educational programs is felt heavily in Florida, which houses the third largest prison population in the country and imposes some of the harshest sentencing policies.
Of the more than 100,000 inmates locked up in Florida prisons, nearly 13,000 of these individuals are serving life sentences. Add to that the number of those with other long-term sentences—and that on average only 20 people a year are awarded parole (which was officially abolished in Florida in 1995 for non-capital felonies), the number of long-term inmates multiplies exponentially.
In fact, Florida has more prisons per square mile than colleges; the only programs the Department of Corrections offers for the general prison population are basic education courses such as those that help prepare prisoners for the GED and English as a second language. Or, if an inmate has less than a three-year sentence, mandatory re-entry classes are required. Notably, nearly three-quarters of all inmates have less than a seventh grade education.
So what options are most commonly available for the tens of thousands of prisoners who want to use their time to educate and rehabilitate themselves?
Almost none. Which is why alternative programs that address this growing disparity are so crucial. Three quarters of all inmates will eventually return to society. Logic prevails that the more prepared prisoners are for re-entry, the easier it will be for both them and for the community into which they will eventually integrate. Well-conceived prison arts programs incorporate skills such as active listening and critical-thinking to make sure that prisoners have a variety of tools to draw upon once released. The cost savings of such programs are also real. Every dollar spent on prison education translates into almost four dollars in savings during the first three years post-release.
Programs like Exchange for Change (E4C), a nonprofit prison writing program, simultaneously address two of our current system’s most glaring problems: the almost total lack of advanced literacy and arts programming in correctional institutions, and widely shared public misunderstanding about who incarcerated people really are. Like many prison arts programs, E4C aims to bridge the gap between our current prison system, which degrades and stigmatizes, with one that respects, rehabilitates, and nurtures the basic humanity of every prisoner.
The E4C program, which began in South Florida with one class in one institution in the summer of 2014, now spans 17 classes in four correctional institutions, and one court-mandated school for juveniles. The program, embraced by the Department of Corrections, grew organically on prison compounds through word-of-mouth. Since participation is voluntary, the organization relies on E4C students for recruitment. Long-term students become role models and leaders to their peers. In one institution, for example, inmate students formed an advisory committee; each member heads or serves one such committee and organizes classes, directs special performances for the public or helps train student teachers, for example. By their own admission, these students have stopped many of the behaviors that previously earned them detentions, as they did not want to be kept from attending classes.
Today, the organization struggles to keep pace with the growing demand for its curriculum which includes debate, rhetoric, journalism, creative writing in Spanish, play-writing, poetry, PTSD journaling for U.S. Veterans, short stories, the “art of the essay,” and E4C’s signature “exchange” course, connecting “inside” students with high school and university students “outside” through anonymous writing exchange classes. It maintains a social-media presence, produces publications, and invites “outside” members to performance-oriented graduations. Such growth speaks to the success of a program that promotes public dialogue and supports participants’ development as both writers and as active citizens in their communities.
The impact is real. As a result of their participation in the program, students have modified their behavior to stay out of trouble in order to attend courses, motivated others to join them, and produced work that has been published in acclaimed national publications and has won awards in PEN’s Prison Writing Contest. The program’s exhibit, Connecting Sentences, which showcases the students’ work, has been extended indifinitely, and has been embraced by the American Library Association to serve as a model across the country.
Ultimately, everyone benefits: Officers have less disciplinary problems; inmates have a new sense of purpose; and the “outside” writing partners have a unique opportunity see their incarcerated partner beyond a stereotypic label. One university student correspondent, for example, even shared with his inmate exchange partner that he was considering dropping out of college to escape his controlling father. The inmate with whom he was communicating shared how he had himself done just that after completing three years on a full scholarship at a top-rated Ivy League school. That decision eventually snowballed and led him to an estranged relationship with his father, substance abuse, and prison, where he is serving a life sentence. It was this story, according to the inmate’s young writing partner, that precipitated his decision to complete his studies.
Other outside student partners have switched majors to become involved in social justice issues, redirected their summer internships, interned in the E4C’s Miami office, and become activists for reform, thanks to the extraordinary influence of this partnership.
These connections and actions offer hope and perspective to both sets of students. When inmates are presented with an opportunity to learn and express themselves in a healthy manner—and when the outside community recognizes that criminals are more than just the crime they committed—everyone, including the Department of Corrections, wins. The DOC needs to recognize that it has more at stake than dollars when it chooses where and how to invest. An educated inmate is their best commodity.