Saturday, May 8, 2010

Students v. Inmates: Financing Higher Education in Prisons

This interesting New York Times piece recounts a recent debate between teams of inmates and students on the question whether the government should finance higher education in prison.

In his dark green uniform and wire-rimmed glasses, Mr. Cooper had the look of a graduate student working some night shift to play the bills. He said that he had done some teaching while in prison, and that he occasionally spoke to at-risk youth about the consequences of “bad choices.” Fifteen years ago, while a student at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, he made a bad choice and joined a robbery on Long Island. “I was a fair student,” Mr. Cooper said. “But I went for the quick fix.”

He and his teammates displayed a consistently confident, Obama-inspired style: some measured, almost soothing oratory; some strategic finger-pointing; some appeals to reason. Statistics poured out at a steady rate, about the country’s high recidivism problem and the links between higher education in prisons and lower recidivism rates. Higher education, Mr. Cooper argued, represents “the last bastion of civility and the last hope for inmates to slip the bonds of incarceration and become tax-paying, productive, caring members of society.”

The New Schoolers could not quite bring themselves, as one of them, Santiago Posas, put it, to make some “Republican we-can’t-coddle-criminals argument.” Instead, they went nuclear, debate-style, rejecting the education system altogether: Even if higher education in prisons is ethical, Mr. Posas argued, that premise “does not address the basis for true equality within our society that is structured by complex and hierarchal racist, classist and gendered norms that produce the prison-industrial complex.”

The inmates won.

It appears that the New School Team didn't go for cost-saving arguments, but rather to post-structuralist rhetoric; they were also given an almost unsustainable position to argue. If I may suggest a more timely topic for a students v. inmates debate, with much more meaty policy-related arguments to make, it might be the question whether states should spend more money on correctional institutions than on higher education. Then again, I'm not sure the inmate team would disagree on the need to change the balance; the question is not whether our correctional expenditure should diminish (it should) but how to achieve the decrease.

Props to Colin Wood for the link.

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