Photo by California Department of Corrections (http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/News/background_info.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by California Department of Corrections (http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/News/background_info.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Above is the vision statement of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the department charged with overseeing the prisons in California. The statement uses terms like “assist our clients” and “successful reintegration into society,” indicating that the department is charged with helping people become active and productive citizens. The very title “Corrections and Rehabilitation” implies a sense of instruction and healing. Unfortunately, the title and mission statement are very misleading: budget constraints and tough-on-crime politics often lead to the overcrowding of prisons and the cutting of programs, creating hostile environments lacking the opportunity for rehabilitation.

When governments fail to provide programming, volunteers often step up to fill in that gap left by the government, but such programs cannot address issues with all inmates, and they are also similarly restricted by budget cuts. They may also experience hostility from prison officials, which could limit the quality of their work.

Prison is often out of sight, out of mind, and therefore not commonly discussed. Prisons are frequently built in rural and economically depressed areas and are therefore far from scrutiny. Security measures – such as prohibiting visitors from bringing in cell phones and cameras — make it difficult to get images or information about prison conditions outside the walls. Furthermore, prison policies tend to affect underrepresented communities such as African Americans and Latin@s. Since these demographics tend to be less affluent and not as visible in politics or national media, their voices are not heard as well. And although it may be waning, tough-on-crime rhetoric makes prison reform a hard sell. Even in the face of events like the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike, prisons are simply not on the national agenda in the same way other issues may be.

Photo by Thomas Hawk via Creative Commons license. Statistics from : Harrison & Beck 2004; U.S. Census Bureau 2004

Photo by Thomas Hawk via Creative Commons license. Statistics from : Harrison & Beck 2004; U.S. Census Bureau 2004

But despite its apparent invisibility, the prison system is a pressing and relevant social justice issue. The sheer amount of incarceration illustrates the pervasiveness of this system. According to the most recent statistics from the US Department of Justice, over 1.5 million people are incarcerated in the United States. Although these numbers, gathered in 2011, were slightly lower than the year before, these statistics mean that approximately 492 for every 100,000 Americans was behind bars. In 2007, the Department of Justice reported that over 5 million individuals were on “community supervision” such as probation and parole – 2.2% of the country’s population. According to the BBC, the United States has twice the number of reported prisoners as China and by far the highest rate.

This has serious implications for local communities. As reported by the New York Times, such high rates of incarceration can depress neighborhoods and communities, launching a “poverty trap” that leaves certain families shuttling between poverty and imprisonment. Black men in their 20s and 30s are more likely to be in prison than to have a job. With men locked up, women find themselves single parents. Additionally, incarceration leads to a dramatic change in the male to female ratio – with women far outnumbering the men. The NYTimes indicates this might correlate with a reported rise in sexually transmitted diseases in such neighborhoods, as men may have multiple mistresses. The constant turnover destabilizes neighborhoods, and criminal backgrounds and disrupted education lead to lowered economic prospects. These disruptions create the “poverty trap.”

Photo by Krystian Olszanski via Creative Commons license

Photo by Krystian Olszanski via Creative Commons license

Besides affecting those outside, the prison system presents a major human rights issue within its walls. The high numbers of incarcerated individuals has led to massive overcrowding and subpar conditions. The ACLU lists many of the human rights violations occurring within the prison system, including solitary confinement, poor access to medical care, and the overall substandard living conditions. Such conditions indicate that the prison system focuses more on punishment than rehabilitation. Most inmates will someday be released, and subjecting them to inhuman conditions and overcrowding in no way prepares them for the outside world.

The failures of the prison system can be seen in recidivism rates. Recidivism refers to a released individual returning to prison due to a parole violation or a new offense; the Department of Justice revealed that in 1994, 67.5% of 300,000 released inmates returned to prison. If the point of prison is to reform people, something is clearly not working.

The prison system is a massive topic, so Literacy Lockup looks specifically at the importance of education in the prison system. The general focus is on academic education as opposed to vocational, such as GED programs and postsecondary education. This type of education is particular in that it focuses not only on trade skills, but on developing intellectual growth as well.

  • The history page looks at the prison throughout American history, showing that the prison is not an everlasting institution. Rather, the prison is influenced and affected by outside policies and politics, and the changing philosophies behind imprisonment affect the way education is integrated into correctional facilities.
  • The impact page shows how prison education has an effect on multiple levels, from the individual inmate to their community to society as a whole.
  • The blog highlights current education programs and media coverage. A common theme throughout the blog is the importance of volunteers, and the way their relationships with prison officials affect their work. (If you have any suggestions for programs to cover, feel free to send it via the contact page.)

The current system is clearly broken. How can education help fix it?

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