When I was asked to teach a course in composition at Attica Prison in 1977, my first reaction was fascination. I had never been in a prison and was intrigued by the possibility of working in such an environment. But my second reaction, which lingered for weeks, was much stronger: intense fear. The Attica riots had taken place only a few years earlier, and the images of Attica burned into the American psyche were of a place of brutality and terror.
My first class at Attica removed this fear and it has never returned over the 39 years that I have worked at three area prisons. Stepping into a physically grim Attica classroom, I was immediately struck by the dramatic contrast between the stark, gray setting and the energetic, engaging students who were already involved in a lively discussion of the assigned reading, which they had read with great care and insight.
The three-hour discussion class that followed was remarkable for its intensity and depth. Although I entered that class fatigued after a full day of work at Canisius College, I left exhilarated and eager for our next meeting.
Over the years, I have taught a wide range of basic and advanced courses at Attica, Wyoming and Collins correctional facilities and I can truthfully say that the excitement I experienced in my first prison class has never diminished. Indeed, I have never taught a prison class that I would not gladly return to if I could reverse time.
Perhaps because the overall environment of a prison is so grimly repressive, inmates regard the classroom as a wonderfully liberating alternative world where genuine learning takes place. For many incarcerated students, college programs can be a life-changing experience, enabling them to rebuild broken lives so that they may return to society as productive citizens. As one student put it in a graduation address at Wyoming Correctional Facility, his prison education was a “metamorphosis” that transformed his life.
I sometimes meet my students after they have been paroled, and this reinforces my faith in our program. They often are employed in well-paying jobs and some have created successful businesses. Several have also gone on to achieve graduate degrees. Because college programs enable inmates to acquire the skills and credentials they need to be successful in the world outside of prison walls, they become tax-paying, family-raising citizens who strengthen the communities to which they return. In this way, educational programs in prison pay for themselves by reducing the rate of recidivism by as much as 50 percent. And it costs over $50,000 per year to keep a person in prison.
Education, which has been in a state of disrepair for many years, has much to learn from college programs for prisoners. Because such enterprises are so modestly funded and prisoners are very limited in the resources they can access, education in prison must be boiled down to its absolute essentials – dedicated teachers, highly motivated, sharply focused students, and administrators devoted to making education a powerful means of enriching human life and strengthening society.
Tragically, our program was forced to close last May due to budget cuts after 42 years of distinguished service. No money was really saved by such shortsighted budgeting. On the contrary, these cuts have inflicted an incalculable human cost on all of us.