Inmates Find Self-Worth Through Prison Education

These resource papers are excerpted from the book College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons.

Learning exposes prisoners — sometimes for the first time in their lives — to the idea that hard work brings success. Prisoner students discover that their identity can be defined as something other than criminals. Each milestone achieved during classwork builds self-esteem. They can envision a life built on principles and techniques other than crime.

Roz, a college graduate serving 50 to life, was interviewed for a study at New York’s Bedford Hills. She told the interviewers that school “was a whole new world. I started surrounding myself with people of like minds. Because when I first came here, I … had a chip on my shoulder that I wanted somebody to knock off … when I started going to college, that was like the key point for me of rehabilitation, of changing myself. And nobody did it for me; I did it for myself.”

Xavier McElrath-Bey was convicted of being an accomplice to murder as a teenager. After being incarcerated, he began giving presentations to fellow inmates to help them learn. The experience inspired him to pursue a master’s after he was released. He eventually became a field researcher at Northwestern University.

John Keith Irwin grew up in Los Angeles’ original Hollywood glitz and was dazzled by the outlaw lifestyle. Burglary, car theft, and armed robbery landed him in prison. He consciously decided to abandon his criminal pursuits and began accumulating college credits. After his release, Irwin enrolled at UCLA for a baccalaureate degree and later earned a doctorate in Sociology from the University of California at Berkeley. He wrote seven books and was a tireless advocate for prison reform.

Arnie King has been incarcerated for decades after having killed an innocent man. His most meaningful job was as an assistant teacher in a prison education program. To better help his fellow prisoners, he earned an Associate in Business, a Bachelor’s in Liberal Studies, and a Master’s in Liberal Arts.

Denise, a college student and mother of three, presented her prison with chronic disciplinary issues. No sooner was she written up for one violation than she would be written up again for a different problem. Then she discovered that she wanted to go to college. Her entire attitude changed. No longer was she rude or obnoxious for no reason. Gone were the disciplinary issues and the constant conflicts.

“College is a form of rehabilitation,” she said. “One of the best.”

Change — lasting change, meaningful change, the kinds of change that transforms — comes from within. No other process or procedure can create that kind of change except education.