Lance leans over his desk, his round belly situating his body tightly between the wooden chair and plastic desk—both too small for someone with his girth. A collection of yellow notepad papers, their edges frayed after being torn from their original binding, wrestle alongside one another in his hands. It is a Saturday morning, and the classroom is small, and silent but for the friction of Lance’s papers and the grinding on the pen he bites out of nervous habit. His large fingers fiddle about the loose sheets, verifying that they’re in order as he mutters to himself, quietly reading his story aloud, restless in the anticipation of sharing with his classmates. Lance is often the first person to arrive in class, having rigorously prepared the entire week, perfecting his assignment so as to leave his peers impressed.
When his remaining four classmates arrive, they form a semicircle of five desks around me. Lance is a short, stocky man with olive skin, a shaved head, and uninhibited inquisition. Tyrus is tall with black, matted dreadlocks that fall to the middle of his back and a thick Caribbean cadence ornamenting his speech. Leo is built like a linebacker but laughs with the unrestrained whimsicality of a child. Chad has a thick New England accent, imbued with Bostonian bravado that juxtaposes his small stature. Darryl’s long salt-and-pepper goatee curls under his chin. His fingers trace the round frames of his reading glasses when a book passage presents him with an intellectual dilemma. Between the five of them they have spent 151 cumulative years in prison. It is unlikely that any of them will be released.
That morning, moved by the book’s reflections on family, Darryl, serving his 43rd year in prison, wrote an essay. He described the despair of having the small moments—the ones that so often shape the contours of an individual’s relationships with loved ones—stripped away. An excerpt reads:
I am suffering in this place. Day after day, week after week, year after year, decade after decade, walking up and down hallways; going from room to room in the same building, under surveillance 24 hours a day.
The keepers start the kepts’ day off with the intercom announcement at five minutes to 7 a.m. “Five minutes to count! Five minutes to count!” The kept stir to life from a night of visiting who knows what or where, perhaps a dream of being home with mother and siblings or wife and children, sitting at the table to eat a meal of turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy, squash, and cranberry sauce. Then looking down to the end of the table and Taser in hand; turning around and seeing bars of the doorway which was not the same doorway he had entered through.
These data are compelling, but they disregard the fundamental role of prison education. Education is a human right—a recognition of dignity that each person should be afforded. It isn’t merely something that attains its value through its presumed social utility—or, worse, something that society can take away from an individual who’s convicted of breaking the social contract. That’s true even for the men I work with, nearly all of whom are serving life sentences, as are nearly 160,000 other people across the country for crimes ranging from first-degree murder to stealing a jacket. This reality—that those I taught would never leave the prison’s premises—recalibrated my understanding of the purpose of prison-education programs. Do those serving life sentences deserve access to educational opportunities never having a future beyond bars? The answer is yes and necessitates that in-prison education serves additional goals beyond reducing recidivism.
For Jill McDonough, a creative-writing professor at the University of Massachusetts who has taught in prisons throughout the state for the past two decades, prison educators and researchers should consider what education can provide that might not fit neatly into a spreadsheet. “I don’t need prison education to have quantifiable outcomes. I understand our incarcerated populations are our responsibility; we decided they don’t get freedom,” she told me, emphasizing that the criminal-justice system cannot simply remove people from society without subsequently providing them with the services they need. “If I were in prison, I’d want to take classes, to sit in a group of like-minded people excited and scared to challenge ourselves, to be able to give myself over to the work.” For McDonough, focusing too intently on quantifiable outcomes obscures what the essence of education, in prison or otherwise, is truly about. “I have been able to teach someone with a life sentence to write a sonnet, to hear that they worked on it with such focus that hours slipped by,” she continued. “That’s enough.”
Education, whether inside or outside of a prison, creates its value in ways that aren’t always simple to measure. Nor should they be. One does not read a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks with hopes that it will grant him a career in engineering; he does so because poetry helps him see something in the world that he might not have seen before. One does not read an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson because it statistically enhances her likelihood of staying out of the criminal-justice system; she does so because there is something to be gained from reading literature and exchanging ideas that tell her something about who she is in the world.
In a political moment defined by its obsession with cutting programs that “[sound] great” but “don’t work,” McDonough’s words may prove particularly essential: Committing to a set of values that may not reveal themselves neatly on a spreadsheet is just as important as adhering to the values that are easiest to calculate and assess.
These men are not perfect. They are complicated. They have made mistakes. In other words, they are human. And it is precisely this humanity that demands a space where they can ask and question and create and grapple with all that makes the world what it is—a place where social and intellectual community might be restored in a way that reestablishes an individual’s agency. The agency a carceral institution inherently attempts to strip away.