Education in Prison



One of the most troubling problems in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) id rehabilitation and education are sporadic at best, and completely lacking at worst. Unfortunately, for over 140,000 individuals residing in our state penal institutions, the worst is far more likely to occur.


In other worlds, “mass incarceration” does not mean “mass rehabilitation” or “mass education.” Instead, it means human warehousing; a place where people are stored until “the powers that be” decide it is time for them to rejoin society.


When products are warehoused, they are stored and ignored until someone decides they are needed. Warehoused products are not improved or altered during their storage. They merely sit and wait until they are moved. For the vast majority of inmates in TDCJ, that is exactly what we experience.


Education is something that could readily improve the futures of many incarcerated individuals, preparing them for release into what we refer to as the “free world”, or society. Rehabilitation begins with education about the addictions, lifestyles, and choices that lead us to prison.


My mother was a high school English teacher in the 90’s and early 2000’s. During that time, I was able to see education move from preparing someone to enter the world into preparing someone to take the next standardized test. Because the average education level of incarcerated individuals is the 8th grade, a large portion of education in prison pertains to attaining a GED. Like other standardized tests, the GED test has specific requirements needed in order to pass.


Limited funding has dropped the number of teachers to a minimum. In order to prepare students for the GED exam, they must teach only what is required to pass. Statistically this looks good. The number of people earning their GED reflects only that; they passed the test to earn a certificate but, many do not leave any more prepared for interaction with society than they did upon entrance into TDCJ.


Beyond the GED certificate, TDCJ offers a handful of vocational trade options that come as either a certificate from TDCJ’s internal school district or from accredited community colleges. These programs are beneficial and can better prepare inmates to acquire a job upon release. However, they are limited and only a select few are able to sign up for them.


Vocational programs such as welding, automotive repair, brick laying, construction, and culinary arts are useful to those allowed to participate in them. Unfortunately, for many Texas prisoners, access to them is limited. You can be denied access based on what crime you were convicted of, previous education or lack thereof, medical issues such as dialysis or cancer, or even the amount of time left in your sentence.


People with more than 30 credit hours from college are barred access to any vocational trade certificate offered by the Windham School District, which are currently the vast majority of trades available. If you have junior college or university degrees from prior to your incarceration, you are “wait-listed” for trades from the community college because others who are less educated need the courses more. Personally, I have degrees from major universities before I was incarcerated and was told it was “unlikely” I would ever come off the wait list, even if I was to pay for my own education up front.


Another instance of access denied occurs for those with serious medical issues. The medical units that offer treatment don’t offer any form of education beyond GED and few options for trade certificates. At the Estelle Unit in Huntsville, inmates who need dialysis or those who suffer from psoriasis are housed due to the treatment they require. It is also an A.D.A. unit that houses deaf and blind inmates. These men have very little option for education beyond earning a GED. Currently the only trade options are a basic brick-laying course or a basic computer skills course.


Those with a significant amount of time until they are eligible for parole suffer as well. Most vocational programs require that you be within a certain number of years for parole or release until you are allowed to apply for them. Inmates facing 20 or more years will not be able to participate in these programs for years or even decades. Those inmates are left to stagnate with no options outside of chapel classes to improve or rehabilitate themselves.


For those of use ineligible for the program that TDCJ currently offers, we have very little available with which to better ourselves. If it is not available in the limited library selection or if our families can’t send something in for us to learn from, we are stuck and unable to better our situation.


In the past, many colleges offered correspondence courses and with these, an inmate could do all the work and earn a degree from an accredited university or community college. In the last decade or so, these institutions have moved from correspondence by mail to online education. It makes sense and is more convenient for the school and the average person who is trying to live life and earn a degree. In Texas, inmates are not allowed access to computers or the internet, so we are not permitted to participate in the correspondence degrees in the internet age.


In many other states, and in the federal prison system, many inmates at minimum and medium custody levels are allowed limited access to these types of programs, if they can afford to participate or are eligible for financial aid.


Education could be a tool that Texas and TDCJ uses to actually rehabilitate those incarcerated in the system. Allowing inmates to better themselves through education is one of the best ways to both prepare them for release into society and help prevent them from returning to prison. Texas is failing its inmate population by holding them back from true rehabilitation. Texas is also failing the citizens of the entire state by constantly releasing offenders who are not prepared mentally and educationally to enter back into society. The easiest way to correct this would be to either offer more access and availability of educational programs to all inmates, or to follow the lead of other states and modernize the prison system by allowing limited access to online educational programs.


This disservice could easily be corrected if Texas was not stuck in a mindset of Draconian punishment instead of rehabilitation. Society would be better served if inmates in Texas spent their time of incarceration rehabilitating and educating themselves instead of sitting, like unused goods, in a warehouse. When will Texas take the lead in caring for its incarcerated citizens, preparing them to succeed in life rather than setting them up for future failure as they do now?

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