The New York Times published an op-ed on Saturday by an unlikely author: an inmate at New York’s Attica Correctional Facility. In it, he explains how prisons could improve by letting inmates take college courses.
In his mid-30s and spending 28-to-life behind bars for murder and dealing drugs, John J. Lennon describes the considerable amount of time prisoners spend watching and talking about television — the “TV program,” as he calls it. Attica officials don’t mind because fewer fights break out when inmates spend more time watching TV.
“But the TVs could be put to better use,” Lennon writes. “What if, a few times a week, massive open online courses, or MOOCs, were streamed on the prison’s internal station, channel 3?”
MOOCs are actually free, and prisons could easily offer them at little to no cost. As Lennon points out, a company like Coursera, which records lectures at top-name universities and makes them available online, could expose inmates to subjects like psychology, sociology, existentialism, economics, and political science. Other resources offer more tangible skills like coding or “employability.”
Back in the 1980s, Lennon writes, prisons made education a priority and offered degrees just like colleges. Lennon calls that period the “rehabilitative era.” But the ’90s backlash against prisoners’ rights and the accompanying legislation to quash funding led to the “retributive era,” he writes.
“When the colleges left, the hope did, too, and when uneducated prisoners get out, they often come back,” Lennon explains.
He has a point. The US has one of the highest incarceration and recidivism rates in the world. In 2013, 698 out of every 100,000 people were incarcerated, and 76.6% of prisoners are re-arrested within five years.
In 2014, New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced — and then swiftly dropped — a plan to tackle the high rate of recidivism by having the state pay for college courses for prison inmates. The political backlash was too much for him.
For his part, Lennon is one of just 22 other inmates out of 2,300 at Attica who have the opportunity to take college classes. He’ll graduate in spring 2015 with an associate’s degree.
“A majority of us will leave prison one day,” Lennon writes. “My mother used to tell me something that obviously took me a long time to figure out: ‘How you think is how you act.'”
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