Columnist Razvan Sibii: Free college courses for people in jail

Daily Hampshire Gazette
By Razvan Sibii
Published: 1/20/2020 4:00:11 PM

In a country where one-third of adults under the age of 30 struggle with student loan debt, why would you go out of your way to provide free college classes to people who have been locked up after being found guilty of breaking the law?

Because it makes our communities safer, because it chips away at systemic inequality, and because we can, and should, walk and chew gum at the same time.

The men incarcerated in the Hampshire County Jail in Northampton can take a number of tuition-free credit-bearing courses taught by UMass and by Amherst College professors (including myself), often alongside matriculated college students who travel to the jail for the classes.

Perhaps some of those professors and students are motivated by good ol’ bleeding-heart liberalism to come work with incarcerated individuals. But for the jail’s administration, the educational programming helps accomplish the institution’s self-professed goal: public safety.

“Our House of Correction is not a state prison, so all of these men are not going away for 20 or 30 years. All of these men are going to be returned to the community,” explains Yvonne Gittelson, the jail’s education coordinator. “Now, speaking as someone who lives in this community, I want these people to be better than when they came in here. And getting them education, getting them treatment, working with them effectively is going to help them when they are released from our custody and when they come right back to live in my county. So it’s a program that helps the community.”

The data backs her up. Ninety-five percent of incarcerated individuals will eventually be released, and many will return to the communities they lived in at the time of their arrest. Upon release, they face daunting obstacles to reintegration, some economic (employers’ reluctance to hire people with criminal records, the lack of continuous work experience, an inability to access welfare benefits, etc.) and some social (the stigma that comes with doing time in prison, the strained family ties, etc.). An astounding 83% of people who are released from prison end up being rearrested within the next nine years.

Taking classes during one’s incarceration does not eliminate these problems. But a decade’ worth of scientific research has left no doubt that educational programs significantly decrease one’s risk of recidivating (by up to 43%!), improve one’s chances of getting a job after release, and even help one’s children avoid falling into the same traps as their parents.

As far as bleeding-heart liberal ideals are concerned, consider this question: If you believe that the criminal justice system disproportionately and unfairly targets poor people and people of color, and you believe in the power of education not just to increase employability but also to raise critical consciousness, what better place to teach free courses than a jail?

Nationally, African-Americans are five times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. Almost half of the individuals who see the inside of a jail cell more than once in one year have incomes below $10,000 per year, and two-thirds of them do not have a college degree.

For Massachusetts, specifically, there’s good news and bad news. The good news: Massachusetts has the lowest incarceration rate among the 50 states. The bad news: That incarceration rate is still twice as high as the UK’s and Canada’s. While African-Americans represent 7% of the state’s population, they represent 26% of its incarcerated population.

Incarceration disproportionally affects those who have already drawn the short straw. Making education accessible in jail is a pretty good social justice goal.

And the educational programming is indeed popular in all of western Massachusetts’s jails. “We’ve been doing it for more than 20 years, because there’s a need and a demand,” says Susanne Campagna, the education coordinator for the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, which oversees the Hampden County Jail in Ludlow and the Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee.

The men’s jail offers five three-credit college courses throughout the year taught by Springfield Technical Community College faculty. The women’s jail offers a transition to college program taught by Holyoke Community College professors, and is in talks with UMass and Amherst College for future credit-bearing courses.

But wouldn’t it be better if we made education accessible to everyone, preferably before people tangle with the justice system? Isn’t it crazy that for some, going to prison is the only realistic way to experience being in a college class? “It’s totally crazy, but these are the values of our society,” says Jenny Abeles, education coordinator with the Franklin County Jail in Greenfield. (Her institution offers courses taught by Greenfield Community College professors.)

“We refuse to fund early childhood education, or education in general,” Abeles said. “We refuse to fund programs that help make it easier for families to raise their children. We refuse to fund health care and mental health care. We would rather let a whole segment of the population flail and struggle and hurt and eventually make a mistake that ends them up in jail. Then we funnel money into jails and prisons. It’s a very backwards way of looking at public safety and looking at serving the public and serving communities in the nation.”

We seem to have the gum-chewing part figured out. But we still haven’t quite learned to walk at the same time.