Monday, March 11, 2013

The Prison Chronicles: The Criminal Underclass and Inmate Higher Education

by G. Jack Urso  

“Nationally, 65% of prisoners have not completed high school. In New York State prisons that number is 75% and in New York City prisons a full 90% of inmates never completed high school.” (Niman)
Detention causes recidivism; those leaving prison have more chance than before of going back to it . . . (Foucalt 265)
Fig. 1: Jail ID.
I first met Edward P. at an orientation for new inmates at Hudson Correctional Facility in upstate New York in the early 1990s. I was a coordinator for the Sage Colleges-Junior College of Albany Inmate Higher Education program and every Tuesday at one in the afternoon I was permitted a few minutes to tell the new inmates all about the advantages of attending college: expand your horizons, prepare for a career, build up your record of accomplishments for the parole board the standard sales pitch.  

Edward, an elderly-looking, spindly black man, shuffled up to me after my speech and grabbed some literature. He never made eye contact, keeping his stare fixed on a spot on the worn linoleum floor. I slipped him a few handouts and he faded back into the crowd.

The following week Edward turned up as the porter on the block where my office was located. I imagined he was in his 60s, but later found out he was only in his early 50s. He had a passive, subservient way about him that had younger inmates pegging him as an “Uncle Tom.” This early bullying, however, quickly gave way to silent respect for Edward had an inmate identification number that began with 74, which meant that he entered the system in 1974. At the time, it was 1992 or 93, as I recall, so he had done some hard time.

Some stories had him as a former Black Panther who got busted when he single-handedly beat up a couple cops. Edward never discussed the charges, claiming only that he did his time and was paroled for a while, but “things just didn’t work out” and was sent back to finish out the rest of his initial sentence.

Truth is an ever-shifting goal post in prison. According to Edward’s record, available online at the New York State Department of Corrections website, he was convicted of Attempted Assault, 1st degree, a Class D felony in 1974, and sentenced to 2.4 years minimum to 14 years maximum. I met him in the early 1990s, maybe 18 years or so after his initial sentencing. This suggests Edward may have had extra time added to his original sentence due to his parole violation or perhaps for various crimes committed while in prison.

I found all that hard to square with the placid and passive gentlemen sitting before me.

During those years, I met with my good friend Steve on a weekly basis to play chess. Steve was a better chess player, but a couple years of weekly meetings sharpened my skills to what I thought was a fine-honed edge. One day, I saw Edward lugging around a chess board looking for a match, in which I happily engaged him. I figured Edward was a slow-witted, institutionalized old con who whose time in purgatory would be blessed by a visitation from the all-knowing, middle-class, white college graduate.

He checkmated me in three moves . . . count them: one, two, three moves.

“That, Mr. Jack,” Edward offered in a hushed tone, “is what they call a discovery.”

Yeah, I just discovered I had my ass handed to me with my head securely inside. I sat in silence, completely humbled by my arrogance and hubris.

“So, Mr. P------,” I asked, addressing Edward by his surname, “have you given any more thought about attending college?”

Edward did, in fact, go on to attend college for one semester. He took four courses, three basic skills courses in reading, writing, and math, and one three-credit general studies course, and with some effort actually passed. Edward had no illusions of going on to get an associate's or bachelor’s degree at his age, he just wanted to get out and live quietly. According to the NYS Department of Corrections, Edward never returned to prison, and I hope the confidence he gained by completing the semester, and routinely beating me at chess, participated in that success.

One underlying reason for recidivism on an individual level is the personal fear that one will fail trying to go straight. The boss will fire them, their lover will leave them, and they won’t have enough money to pay the bills. It was a story I heard many times.

“Welcome to my world guys,” I would tell the inmates, “so, what’s your point?”

In one sense, the point I was making was true everyone has the same fears and struggles. In my youth, however, I was naive to think that someone with a criminal record plays on the same field as someone without one.

No Hope in the Land of Canaan  
A study conducted by a University of Buffalo faculty member found that nearly 75% of inmates in New York State prisons come from seven neighborhoods in New York City. (Andrew Glover Youth Program)
It should come as no surprise that the general unemployment rates in the aforementioned neighborhoods approach 19-percent (Phillips), and among teens it is even higher. Young Black or Latino males in those neighborhoods have a 60-percent higher chance of being unemploymed than their White and Asian contemporaries (Andrew Glover Youth Program).  During the 1990s, when I worked in inmate higher education, unemployment rates among New York City teenagers hovered around 52-percent (Hevesi). At the time, 75-percent of New York State’s prison population originated from only seven neighborhoods in New York City, according to a 1992 New York Times report  statistics that likely haven't much changed in twenty years (Lewin).

Jay MacLeod, in his 1987 book Aint’ No Makin’ it: Leveled Aspirations in a Low-Income Neighborhood, looked at two low-income groups: one that had upwardly mobile aspirations and another with low aspirations and no expectation of “makin’ it.” Overall, due to a lack of socialization with middle class values, those individuals with high aspirations had little more chance of breaking out of the cycle of poverty then those with low/no aspirations.

Why bother at all? It reminds me of “The Starfish Story” by Loren Eiseley, about an old man who went beach combing after a big storm and saw thousands of starfish washed up, drying out and dying, exposed to the morning sun. There, he saw a young boy throwing starfish back into the ocean:
But, young man [the old man said], do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!"
As if he hadn't heard, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he turned, smiled and said, "It made a difference to that one!" (Eiseley)
If I can help one man or woman live within the parameters of society, make a contribution, and be rewarded for that contribution, then I feel much like that boy in the story. Though I admit, as the years go by, I become more sympathetic to the old man’s point of view.

For the Good of Society
“Without education, I am afraid most inmates leave prison only to return to a life of crime.” U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell, Father of the Pell Grant, 1994 (Abdul-Alim)
Edward was able to attend college because at the time all students, whether they were incarcerated or not, could apply for the federal Pell grant and the state TAP grant, which provided financial aid for higher education. Since inmates were, by virtue of their incarceration, indignant, they qualified for full financial aid a situation that changed in 1995 when Governor George Pataki demagogued the issue until 1994 when the state legislature passed a bill that made any New York State inmate ineligible for state financial aid (TAP grants). The federal government followed suite in 1995, at which point my career came to screeching halt.
Fig 2: Letter
to the Editor,
Times Union,
circa 1994.

Those measures were only one step in disenfranchising a whole class of people from access to higher education. Failure to register for the Selective Service system by age 26, established to maintain a list of draft-age eligible men, results in loss of college financial aid permanently. For many, this may seem appropriate; however, individuals who drop out of school, and start accruing criminal records at a young age, frankly, are not informed or otherwise exposed to information about the failure to register for Selective Service. By the time they begin to climb out of their cycle of crime and substance abuse, they discover they are no longer eligible for the financial aid needed to attend college and there is nothing they can do about it.

Due to their records, and lacking an education beyond a G.E.D., most ex-convicts are relegated to low wage earning work and will never be able to afford the high cost of college without financial aid. The pointless vindictiveness of the Selective Service System is made even more ironic by the fact that that not only would the inmates never be accepted into the military due to their records, but that the likelihood of the draft being reinstated is as remote as an invasion by the Soviet Union in the 21st century.

On too many occasions have I seen the crestfallen faces of men who have been turned onto the impact of higher education for their lives, only to see that future snatched away by their failure long ago to register for a Selective Service System they never heard of, in case of a draft that will never happen.
Tell me, what can I say to such a man to convince him of rewards for going on the straight and narrow? Nothing I could only tell him that he is screwed, there is nothing he can do about it, and not to let the door hit him on the way the out.

The Cost of Punishment vs. Education
Degree earning participants also returned at a lower rate than would be expected when compared to the overall male return rate. These findings suggest that earning a college degree while incarcerated is positively related to successful post-release adjustment as measured by return to the Department's custody. (Prison Policy Initiative, August 1991)

In 1989, I was hired as a program coordinator and counselor for the Sage–Junior College of Albany (SAGE-JCA) inmate higher education program which ran in four upstate New York prisons: Coxsackie, Greene, Hudson, and Mt. McGregor Correctional Facilities. The college was innovative, being the among the very first to offer a two-year degree in drug and alcoholism counseling in the state, even before our on-campus programs, as well as offering four-year degree programs to inmates at Greene C.F.
Fig. 3: Employment notice from the Sage Colleges announcing my hire,
Albany Times Union, November 5, 1989.
The Sage Colleges in Albany and Troy, NY, began as, and still runs, a women-only college, but later began co-ed two- and four-year degree programs. Nevertheless, despite a healthy dose of Northeastern liberal educational philosophy, the college sometimes had a problematic relationship with the principle of educating inmates. This was particularly evident when one year, about 1993 or 1994, the college’s four-year degree valedictorian technically was a Chinese drug-runner incarcerated at Greene Correctional Facility. 

That being said, the college had a good reason for staying in inmate higher education, we brought in on average $300,000 to $350,000 in business every semester. Actually, one could say they had several hundred thousand reasons for their academic altruism.

These data show that the return rate of Inmate College Program participants [in New York State] who had earned degrees was lower than the return rate…of the male release population for the corresponding release year. (Prison Policy Initiative, August 1991)

In 1991, the Prison Policy Initiative released the report, “Analysis of Return Rates of the Inmate College Program Participates,” which reviewed the inmate recidivism rates of students in 21 New York State Inmate Higher Education Programs, including Sage-JCA. The study found that those inmates in the sample who completed a college degree in prison had a lower rate of return to prison than those inmates who did not complete a degree.

. . . in general, inmate College Program participants who were awarded degrees in 1987 have a lower return rate than Inmate College Program participants who voluntarily withdrew or were administratively removed. A comparison of the total return rates shows that 26.4% of the participants who had been awarded a college degree were returned to the Department's custody, whereas 44.6% of those who withdrew or were administratively removed had been returned. (Prison Policy Initiative)

This means that roughly 2.5 of every 10 inmates who completed college degree programs returned to prison, as compared to approximately 4.5 out of every 10 inmates who did not complete a college degree. In 1991, the cost of keeping an inmate incarcerated was about $25,000 a year and it only cost about $4,000 to send an inmate to college full-time for a year, so the savings to the taxpayer could be considerable.
Fig. 4: Letter to the Editor printed in the Albany Times Union, November 1993.
Unfortunately, I eventually discovered that cost-benefit analyses often take a back seat to politicians trolling for votes.

You’ve Done a Great Job, Now Get the Hell Out
In the Spring of 1994, at the annual conference of the New York State Inmate Higher Education Professional Association, we watched C-SPAN silently as Congress debated the relative merits of using federal financial aid funds for college correctional education programs. Actually, there wasn’t much of a debate at all as one politician after another stated their belief that even though education may have a rehabilitative value, the purpose of prison is to punish, not educate.

According to the Pew Charitable Trust, as of 2011, jails and prisons in the United States release approximately 750,000 prisoners back into their local communities every year (Santos). The question is, do you want them to be released with a G.E.D. or college education, or with a record and absolutely nothing to offer a prospective employer?

Higher education is not just a means to an end, but rather it is the journey of education that brings enlightenment. People underestimate the depth of functional illiteracy and ignorance among the poor and uneducated that end up in prison. One afternoon, teaching a G.E.D. class at Columbia County Jail and frustrated at my students’ inability to comprehend certain basic scientific concepts, I stopped and asked, “Ok, someone tell me. Does the Earth orbit the Sun or does the Sun orbit the Earth?”

The inmates looked at each other in silence. No one could confidently answer the question.

Finally, someone cautiously asked, "This is a trick question, right?"

Another time, an inmate was unable to identify New York State on a map of the United States with the state boundaries outlined. He had no sense of exactly where on the planet he lived.

At first, I recoiled in horror at the depths of such ignorance, but the fact of the matter is that for most of my students whether or not the Earth orbits the Sun is an irrelevant fact. It won’t help them survive in the dysfunctional world of abuse, poverty, and violence most of them were born into.
Fig. 5: Termination letter.
In the early 1990s, Congress authorized a study on the impact of higher education on inmate recidivism rates, which we anticipated would confirm the 1991 Prison Policy Initiative report. Congress, however, never authorized funds for the study so it never got done. Not that it would have mattered. The decision was already as good as done. Federal financial aid for inmate higher education was eventually voted down in 1994 for the 1995 fiscal year. President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act into law in 1994, this banned prisoners from receiving Pell grants (Abdul-Alim).

What is particularly sad is that while politicians like Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas), claimed, during the debate at the time, that "Pell Grants are a great scam: rob a store, go to jail, and get your degree,” she also shamelessly ignored the fact that most of the inmate-students were eligible for the same grants in or out of jail since many lived at or below the poverty line (Abdul-Alim). Getting arrested simply rearranged their priorities. 

Additionally, as Ms. Hutchinson also failed to point out, at the height of the federally funded inmate higher education programs in the early 1990s, about three-quarters of one-percent of all Pell grants were awarded to inmates  a modest investment for lowered recidivism rates (Abdul-Alim). I cite this statistic in my letter to the editor printed in the Albany Times-Union in November 1993 (see fig. 4, above), so the information was well-known, even then.

After years of working with some of the most violent individuals in society, without regard for the stress, extortion attempts, and death threats that accompany working with such students, our efforts were summarily dismissed as a pointless waste of taxpayer money.

You’re welcome.

The Sands of Time
After the closure of the Sage Correctional Education Program, I bounced around for a couple years, got certified as an English teacher and wound up back in corrections, this time as a G.E.D. teacher at various county jails.
         Fig. 6: Paperweight award.
“Thanks for your service. Here’s a rock.”
From time to time, I thought about my experiences playing chess with Edward. At my best, I never got past more than a dozen moves before checkmate. Few inmates wanted to play Edward because of his skill, so he seemed to take particular enjoyment in our games. He would patiently explain to me my mistakes, always addressing me as “Mister Jack.” Uncomfortable at such displays of class deference, I always addressed Edward by his surname, “Mister P-----.”

I often wondered how Edward was changed by prison. Could he have ever been a wild young man capable of a violent assault? I later witnessed this process of change first-hand, a perspective only age can provide.
While working at Columbia County Jail in the mid-1990s, I worked with a young man, Tyler, barely 17, who was incarcerated on some petty theft charges. Of particular note, his father and step-mother were also incarcerated in the same jail at the same time, all on unrelated charges.

Tyler embodied the very spirit of youthful rebellion. He was an almost natural force of sudden violent outbursts, bullying, and impulsive actions; however, he was also smart and he seemed earnest to prove this point to everyone. When he would blow off class, I would march down to the block, bang on the cell door, and have the officer haul his lazy ass out of his bunk. Tyler said he hated this, though we repeated this pattern on several occasions. Somehow, I think he enjoyed the extra attention.
I worked with Tyler, and after he passed the pre-tests we both felt confident that he would pass the exam itself. When he received his release date I scheduled him to take the G.E.D. exam three days after he hit the streets. All Tyler had to do was show up and take the exam. It was a safe bet he would pass; my students had a 90-percent passage rate and Tyler had a natural intelligence.

Within 24 hours of being released, Tyler stole a car with a friend and was in Texas before the law caught up with him.

Ten years later, after having worked in publishing and public relations for a time, I returned to Columbia County Jail to teach G.E.D. once again. Among my students was an older and much sadder Tyler. At first, I barely recognized him; his features seemed heavier and more sharply defined, like a weathered rock face on the side of a mountain exposed to the raw elements.

Tyler never got his G.E.D., and his mind seemed far less acute than it was a decade earlier. Math problems that he once whizzed through now stumped him. His writing skills had degraded, despite a professed desire to become a sports reporter. We had a joyous, though somewhat awkward reunion.

My class at that time was filled with a couple wild young boys from a local juvenile detention camp who stole a car and some self-declared gang members in on drug and assault charges. Ten years previously, Tyler would have gladly confronted any one of these young thugs, but now he shrunk away, stopped going to class, and hid in his cell. I asked Tyler’s cousin, who was also in jail at the time, what happened. The cousin spoke bitterly of Tyler, hinting to some long distant sin against the family. I knew the family, a number of them passed through the jail at one point or another, so whatever Tyler did, it must have been serious indeed for him to be disowned by a family of ex-cons.

A decade later, I found a once rebellious young man filled with academic promise now defeated, abandoned by his family, and his natural intelligence degraded. At 17, he was three days away from getting his G.E.D.; now, it might as well be an eternity.

I could then see what had happened to my elderly, incarcerated chess partner Edward.

Play your OWN Game
Fig. 7: Inmate self-portrait,
Columbia County Jail, 1999.
(Author's collection).
One day, at Columbia County Jail, an inmate, a strutting young man who claimed to be unbeatable on the chess board, spent a good portion of my G.E.D. class boasting about his skills. He was one of several young men said to be members of, or affiliated with, the Latin Kings street gang. One never knew the truth, and it hardly mattered to me. Murderers, rapists, thieves, con-artists, pedophiles, child pornographers, arsonists . . . I’ve taught them all. As long as they sat down and did their work, I didn’t really care why they were there.

I tried to engage this one particular inmate in an effort to get him to write about the game of chess as a topic for his essay, but he seemed more interested in disrupting class. His fellow gang members, mostly Puerto Ricans, joined in, much to the dismay of the Mexicans who just wanted peace and quiet and get down to work. The Mexicans were day laborers caught up in some petty crime, probably much the same as the Puerto Ricans, but for some reason there seemed to be an antagonism between the two groups that I, being a gringo, did not quite understand.

The sole Jamaican in the class, who took his studies very seriously, had little patience for the Puerto Rican’s boasting.

“If you’re so good, why don’t you play Mr. Urso?”

The only actual Rastafarian they will likely ever meet in this hick, upstate New York hill town, the Jamaican projected an almost mystic influence on the younger inmates that cowed even the most troublesome.

“Yeah, well,” the Puerto Rican retreated a bit from his boasts, “the set’s back in the block . . .”

“I’ll get it,” one of the Mexicans said, bolting for the door a little too anxious to see the match.

Soon, bets were being made using commissary items, such as packets of soup and candy, though no one bothered to ask me if I actually wanted to play. If I lost the game, my authority in the class could be undermined. Should that happen in a class full of convicts my job would become a daily match of wills for control  so, pretty much like any normal high school class.

The Puerto Rican had a fast, aggressive playing style with each move ending with a strutting boast concerning my near-imminent demise. As soon as I made a move, he made his almost without any thought. He was trying to intimidate me with his knowledge of classic opening moves and attack strategies. I began thinking about playing Edward all those years ago at Hudson Correctional Facility.

Edward executed his game like a master musician playing a well-rehearsed piece. No matter how much thought I gave to a move, Edward quickly made the best move to counter it, slowly moving me closer to checkmate every turn. Frustrated, I began to emulate Edward’s play, hoping to psych him out; however, unlike Edward, I had no grand plan, I was just reacting.

“No!” Edward chided me when I started doing this during one match. “Don’t play my game, play your OWN game.”

What Edward meant is that I shouldn’t get rattled, no matter how the game was going. Have a plan and work it, so if I get beat at least I played my best game.

In the match with my young Puerto Rican student, I ignored his rather obvious attempts to psyche me out and slowly deliberated every move. This drove him absolutely nuts. After about fifteen minutes, his boasting stopped and he settled down. He knew he was in for a tough game.

The class quieted and even a couple guards gathered outside the window to check out the action. Neither of us conceded a piece for nearly half an hour as we maneuvered for the advantage. I knew if I tried to beat him tactically, it would be a very long game, and I might lose. Plus, I had to resolve this game within an hour, so I sacrificed a couple pieces, which I knew he would take, and as a result weaken his defense. Before he knew it, I had him in a two-way checkmate and the game was over.

My young gangbanger opponent, so sure of himself, never anticipated he would lose the game. Remembering my own games with Edward, I couldn’t resist . . .

“That, my friend, is what you call a discovery.

Whatsoever you do to the least of your brethren . . .
Today, inmate higher education programs still exist in New York State prisons, albeit on a greatly reduced scale. Without federal or state financial aid, the students must pay for the courses themselves, limiting access only to those who could also afford to pay for it on the outside. As a result, the impact of higher education on those inmates who need it most, inside or out, is entirely lost.

In today’s financial conditions it just is not feasible to bring back federal or state financial aid for inmate higher education  particularly when college costs seem to rise at a higher average annual rate than other sectors of the economy. Still, as previously noted, during the height of federally-funded inmate higher education programs in the early to mid-1990s, federal financial aid to inmates in the form of Pell grants constituted less than one-percent of the total grants awarded annually (Abdul-Alim). I assert that we as a society simply cannot afford NOT to pay this very modest investment.

Fig. 8: The Sage Junior College of Albany graduating class at
Hudson Correctional Facility, Hudson, NY, May 1991.
Soon, the gap between rich and poor will not just be a matter of wealth, but also of access to technology. While we assume that young people have an almost innate grasp of technology, as an educator I have found this not to be true. Particularly, as one goes down the socio-economic ladder, the ability to use computers and effectively use the Internet for research and education becomes a less widespread skill. Based upon my experience in higher education, students in college today simply cannot succeed without possessing proficient computer skills.

Nevertheless, as we progress further into the 21st century, it becomes more and more apparent that those without post-secondary education or vocational training, and access to technology, will be left behind to constitute a perpetually disenfranchised underclass.

That is something no one can afford.

Works Cited
Abdul-Alim, Jamaal. “It’s Time to Lift the Ban on Pell Grants for
        Prisoners.” Campus Progress.,
        17 September 2010. Web. 5 March 2013.

Andrew Glover Youth Program. “Our Communities.” Andrew
        Glover Youth Program., n.d. Web. 5 March 2013. 

Eiseley, Loren. “The Starfish Story.” Voices4Children.
, n.d. Web. 5 March 2013.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New
        York: Vintage Books, 1979. Print.

Hevesi, Alan G. Comptroller. “City Job Market Tight for Teens.”
        Economic Notes. The New York City Comptroller's Office,
        March 2001. Web. 5 March 2013. <http://www.comptroller.>.

Lewin, Ramar. “Inmate Education Is Found To Lower Risk of New
        Arrest.” New York Times. The New York Times Company, 23 
        Dec. 1992. Web. 10 March 2013. <

MacLeod, Jay. Ain’t No Makin’ It: Leveled Aspirations in a Low-
        Income Neighborhood. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press
        Inc., 1987. Print.

Niman, Michael I. “Incarceration Nation: The US is the World’s
        Leading Jailer.” Media Study., 4 Jan. 2000.
        Web. 5 March 2013. <

Phillips, Jack. “Unemployment Rates Vary Widely in NYC, Says
        Report.” The Epoch Times. The Epoch Times, 21 Dec. 2009.
        Web. 5 March 2013. <

Santos, Michael. “Deliberate Adjustment Plan.” Prison News Blog:
        Prison News and Commentary, 1 June 2009. Web. 6 March 
        2013. <