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Convict’s Plea To Take College Classes Behind Bars Will Change How You See Prison Education

In a New York prison, one convict is asking for a college education behind bars.

John J. Lennon, an inmate at Attica Correctional Facility, says inmates are constantly inundated with television, and that what flashes on the TV screen is a focal point of prison life. While watching TV is hardly punishment, Lennon says in a New York Times editorial that the technology is missing out on a cheap, easy way to educate prisoners and reduce recidivism.

“What if, a few times a week, massive open online courses, or MOOCs, were streamed on the prison’s internal station, channel 3?,” Lennon said. “Companies like Coursera already record university lectures — in subjects like psychology, sociology, existentialism, economics and political science — and stream them online for free. The MOOCs, which are free for the rest of the world, could help American prisoners become more educated and connected.”

Lennon was convicted of drug dealing and murder in 2004 and entered prison in his 20’s with a ninth grade education and a 28-year sentence. He points to the decline of prison education programs as a reason for high recidivism rates.

“When the colleges left, the hope did, too, and when uneducated prisoners get out, they often come back,” Lennon said.

Lennon is in his own class at Attica, but he’s only one of a select few who can attend classes. Only 23 out of 2,300 have participate in the educational program. He has used that opportunity to spread the hope he has gained through the program to his prison neighbor, who he describes as “thugged out.”

“He hears me typing during the day on an old Word processor I use, sees me heading to class at night,” Lennon said. He asks about what I’m learning. So I tell him about the theories and concepts — Machiavellianism, Marxism, social Darwinism — that my cranky and brilliant instructor weaves through all of his lectures. I show Roberto my writing, pass him my subscriptions, sections of this newspaper, issues of The New Yorker and The Atlantic. I try to make education and intellect look cool. It seems to work.”

Lennon is right in linking education and recidivism. Inmates released without a college degree, and often a high school diploma, have little to no work experience as well as their criminal record which can make getting a job nearly impossible.

Once they have no form of income, they are often forced to move in with relatives in neighborhoods that got them in trouble in the first place and take the only kind of paying work they can: illegal activity.

Education can help economic opportunity, which is key to staying out of prison. Employment is 13 percent higher for prisoners who engage in vocational or educational training while in prison.

A 2013 Justice Department study found that inmates who participated in education while incarcerated had 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who didn’t. It’s worth mentioning, though, that those willing to take courses are likely the kind of inmate who has a real desire to get his life back on track. Education helps, but it’s not a magic pill.

Even though prison education has been proven to work and reducing recidivism saves significant sums for states, the recent economic downturn forced many states to cut their budgets for prison education.

Now that the economy is on the upswing, time will tell if those budgets will grow with the economy.

You can read the full letter here.

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