Turn Prisons Into Colleges – by Elizabeth Hinton – NYT

“Imagine if prisons looked like the grounds of universities. Instead of languishing in cells, incarcerated people sat in classrooms and learned about climate science or poetry — just like college students. Or even with them.This would be a boon to prisoners across the country, a vast majority of whom do not have a high school diploma. And it could help shrink our prison population. While racial disparities in arrests and convictions are alarming, education level is a far stronger predictor of future incarceration than race.

The idea is rooted in history. In the 1920s, Howard Belding Gill, a criminologist and a Harvard alumnus, developed a college-like community at the Norfolk State Prison Colony in Massachusetts, where he was the superintendent. Prisoners wore normal clothing, participated in cooperative self-government with staff, and took academic courses with instructors from Emerson, Boston University and Harvard. They ran a newspaper, radio show and jazz orchestra, and they had access to an extensive library.

Norfolk had such a good reputation, Malcolm X asked to be transferred there from Charlestown State Prison in Boston so, as he wrote in his petition, he could use “the educational facilities that aren’t in these other institutions.” At Norfolk, “there are many things that I would like to learn that would be of use to me when I regain my freedom.” After Malcolm X’s request was granted, he joined the famous Norfolk Debate Society, through which inmates connected to students at Harvard and other universities.”

Yes. And here is one comment of many that I liked.

James Lee Arlington, Texas 4 hours ago
The value of Professor Hinton’s suggestion should be obvious, but our society tends to treat lawbreakers as outcasts, whose offenses deprive them of any right to decent treatment on our part. So we stash them in hellholes, then release them back into the outside world, still hobbled by restrictions on their ability to get a job and lead a constructive life. After all this, we declare ourselves shocked, shocked that so many of them wind up back in prison.

We could improve this miserable record if, as many European countries do, we regarded inmates as members of the community whose behavior required their temporary removal from society. If we treated them as resources who retained the potential to contribute to our economy and society, then most of them would respond positively to incentives that enabled them to fulfill that potential.

This has nothing to do with sentimentality. This country spends an enormous amount of money on mass incarceration, without striking at the roots of crime. While some inmates would defy any efforts to rehabilitate them, common sense and all the empirical evidence collected by experts demonstrate that such people form a small part of the prison population.

If our country truly regarded education as an investment rather than a cost, moreover, we would spend more wisely on schools, reducing the number of inmates in the first place. It is cheaper to prevent a problem than to cope with it after it has developed.
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