Analysis: Marlene Martin
THE 1960s were turbulent years; social change was in the air. Jim Crow  segregation was dismantled, and the civil rights movement brought  questions of racial and social justice into every household–and also  into every prison. As people sought to change society on the outside, so did prisoners on the inside.

The Attica prison uprising is the best-known and most dramatic attempt by prisoners to change their conditions for the better.

In 1971, the prisoners took over Attica, calling for both political and  practical changes. Their demands included allowing prisoners to be  politically active and free to adhere to any religion. Practical demands included the ability of prisoners to see a doctor if they were ill, the allotment of more than one toilet roll a month, and more access to  education and true rehabilitative programs.

While the Attica  uprising was put down by state police, the cry for prison reform was  heard. Prior to Attica, prison educational programs were paltry. But  because of the uprising and the continued organizing of prisoners  afterward, these programs expanded dramatically.

Before 1965,  only a handful of educational programs existed in prisons, and none  granted degrees. By 1982, college prison educational programs were  offered in 350 prisons across the country.

In 1965, Congress  passed legislation allowing prisoners to apply for Pell grants to pay  for their education. The total amount of Pell grants awarded to  prisoners was 0.1 percent of the total given under the Pell grant  program. But it was enough to sustain college education programs in 90  percent of states.

The value of secondary education programs in  prison has been proven time and time again by studies. It is borne out  most dramatically in statistics on recidivism. As a report compiled by  Daniel Karpowiz and Max Kenner, titled “Education as crime prevention;  the case for reinstating Pell Grant Eligibility,” finds, “Postsecondary  education is the most successful and cost-effective method of preventing crime.”

GIVEN THESE  positive outcomes, you would think that support for prison education  programs would go on growing. Instead, in 1994, President Bill Clinton  signed legislation denying Pell grant money for prisoners’ education.  Immediately, programs began to shut down; they are now all but gone. (A  few have made a comeback recently, but largely on a voluntary basis.)

Why would the federal government cut back on programs that clearly work?
This question cannot be answered without taking into account the shift that  has taken place in prison policy since the early 1970s.

With the  retreat of the movements of the 1960s, the government’s approach to  prisons and prisoners was pulled in a more conservative direction, like  other social policies. The idea that it should be a concern of society  to help prisoners better themselves disappeared; instead, prison became a place where people were thrown away to pay for their crimes.

As  Paul Wright, a former prisoner, author and the editor of Prison Legal  News, explained, “There has been a political decision made by  legislators and the executive branch–they want a permanent underclass.

“These things don’t happen on their own. They need help from above, and prison and education is a perfect example. Every study that’s been done on the subject of prison education going back at least 80 years, and probably  before, shows that the more education people in prison get, the lower  the recidivism rates.”
But lawmakers’ policy decisions show, as  Wright says, that “legislators don’t want to reduce recidivism rates,  they don’t want to make our communities safer.”

And because  secondary education is a commodity in the U.S., unlike most  industrialized countries, Wright says legislators will ask why prisoners should get a college education for free when everybody else has to pay  for it. “And that’s a good question,” he says. “Why can’t people who  aren’t in prison get a free education–which in most industrialized  capitalist countries is deemed a right of citizenship?”
Wright  contends that the lack of educational programs for prisoners is just one example showing the real direction of current prison policies.

“Setting prisons in rural areas far from the urban centers that generate most  prisoners; cutting off contacts with the community and family support  networks; denying contacts with families through exorbitant prices for  phone calls; draconian visiting policies–these are things you would do  if your goal is to create an alienated, isolated non-functional  underclass of people who cannot ever be reintegrated into society,” he  says. “And that’s what we have in this country.”

The  tough-on-crime era of the 1970s and after ushered in a host of measures  that supported the framework of a harsher, more punitive approach to  prisoners. One example was the return of the death penalty in mid-1970s, after a brief moratorium imposed by the Supreme Court.

The same  attitude continued with the introduction of life-without-parole  sentences, which now exist in every state except Alaska. Mandatory  minimum sentencing, three-strikes-and-you’re-out sentencing laws,  juveniles being tried as adults–all of these were part of the trend.
Amid all this, the defunding of education program for prisoners was a less noticed, but related, change.

BRINGING BACK college educational programs for prisoners and making money  available for them is only one piece of many to address our broken  criminal justice system. For example, mental health care and substance  abuse programs are desperately needed.

So in the fight for more  and better programs, and in challenging the death penalty and other  harsh punishments, we should also be arguing for a more humane approach  overall to our prison work–and not fall into any false ideas that more  cops or longer and harsher sentences are going to make us safe. As  Angela Davis says, “We have to move from a society that is grounded in  vengeance to a society that is grounded in justice.”

Society  offers very little to those in prison, and even less when prisoners get  out. For example, Darrell Cannon–a victim of the Chicago police  torturers operating under Jon Burge, who spent 24 years locked up in  prison, nine of them in solitary confinement, for a crime he didn’t  commit–was offered no help at all when he was finally freed. He  explains that former prisoners are set up to fail.

“I’ll be  honest,” he says, “the temptation is there. You know, flipping  hamburgers for minimum wage–how am I supposed to take care of my family on that? So the temptation is there to go back to the gang life. But I  am determined to resist that temptation.”

Of course, because of  racism, it is that much harder for African Americans who have been to  prison to make it on the outside. Studies show that a white person with a criminal record is more likely to be hired for a job than an African  American without a record.

Today, there’s small crack presenting  itself on the criminal justice front. Sen. Jim Webb has introduced  legislation to form a commission to review the entire broken criminal  justice system.

Webb’s commission would look at wrong-headed  policies that have resulted in the U.S. having the largest prison  population in the world–including unfair sentencing policies, the  incidence of mental illness in prison, and the lack of programs to help  inmates re-enter society.

This is a welcome change in the  previously united attitude of legislators, who have for far too long  gone along with a criminal justice system that has destroyed countless  lives.

There are other indications that change is afoot–from the abolition of the death penalty in New Mexico earlier this year, to Rep. Maxine Waters proposal to do away with mandatory minimums, to the  reform of the decades-old Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York.

Some of the impetus for these changes undoubtedly comes from the budget  crisis. States and the federal governments are desperate to cut  expensive programs, and that’s exactly what our prison-industrial  complex has become.

But they are also an indication of an  emerging progressive attitude in the Obama era–one that is beginning to question the “vengeance” approach to prison, not only because it is so  costly, but also because it is so dramatically unfair, ineffective and  racist.
What will be decisive in the coming period is whether or  not we are able to mobilize our forces to press for these and other  needed changes.

We have more than enough studies documenting the  horrible conditions that exist in today’s prisons. In 2003, for example, a Human Rights Watch report said that U.S. prisons have become a  repository for the mentally ill. As many as 300,000 prisoners are  mentally ill and lack treatment; they are abused by staff and confined  in filthy cells.
We don’t need more studies. We need change. And  we need an organized voice of concerned people, working in conjunction  with prisoners, to push for these changes publicly.

Like the  Attica uprising and the civil rights movement showed us, this kind of  organizing works. That’s why the Campaign to End the Death Penalty aims  to work with prisoners and their family members to not only build a  movement that can challenge the death penalty, but one that can also  push for more progressive changes in prison.

This article was published by Prison Legal News and is used by permission.

First published in the New Abolitionist.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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