The Cuckoos Run the Ward: Why Prison Education Isn’t Emphasized in American Corrections

The Cuckoos Run the Ward: Why Prison Education Isn’t Emphasized in American Corrections

The noise is deafening as I sit at my desk working on my latest English paper. Men locked in their cells, yet shouting. Their fists and feet collided with their steel cell doors, reverberating around the housing unit. All these sounds are carried to my cell – cell 91 – through the space below the door and the vent.

Nevertheless, I attempt to work, but the noise is more than a mild distraction. It’s like I’m being tapped on the shoulder each time I start a new sentence. Just when I think it can’t get any worse…it does. The idiots are now beating on their cells’ walls, floors, and ceilings. A football game must be on the TV.

It is impressive to see the pure stupidity of three-fourths of my housing units’ occupants and their sustained interest in the program. This shows that they have the potential to care and even the motivation to do something. Still, they relegate themselves to simply arguing about football games or singing along to music videos. What does this say about them? What does it say about the state of American corrections when this activity is encouraged (via no roadblocks) and seeking an education is discouraged (via roadblocks)? It all seems upside down to me.

Here’s a novel idea: structure correctional settings as you would your home, albeit a secure home. Liken the prisoners to a child who is having disciplinary issues. As they enter the prison system, start them on a grounded basis. Then, as they meet certain educational, rehabilitative, and conduct milestones, reward them individually, that is. This could even be implemented on a housing unit level.

Implementing the following structure would be an interesting social experiment:

Level One

Inmates remain locked in their cells until orientation is completed and they have successfully enrolled in the prison’s GED program or the Adult Continuing Education program if they already possess a GED.

Also, use this level as a disciplinary level. If an inmate violates enough rules or policies, hold them here until they complete a certain number of workbooks, meetings (e.g., AA, NA, criminal thinking, etc.), or independent study courses. The idea is to focus on growth to earn more privileges, not a certain amount of time until privileges are returned.

Level Two

Inmates are allowed full access to all prison facilities (e.g., recreation, library, commissary, chapel, etc.). They are also entitled to receive visits. To maintain Level 2 status, disciplinary issues must be minimal, and a certain number of educational/ rehabilitative courses must be completed every six months.

To advance to Level 3, inmates must take on additional responsibilities such as an institutional job, college-level studies, or enroll and complete a program of prolonged study.

Level Three

Inmates are allowed all Level 2 privileges, telephone usage, TV usage, extended commissary privileges (e.g., buy a typewriter or a small TV for use in their cell), and less restrictive property, movement, and housing restrictions.

To maintain Level 3 status, disciplinary issues must be minimal, a certain number of educational/rehabilitative courses must be completed every six months, and a prolonged program of study must be commenced.

To advance to Level 4, inmates must go far out of their way to help others and must have – and maintain – superior academic attainment/standing. Think of those who earn a minimum of an Associate’s degree, teach classes in prison, or engage in exceptional service to others.

Level Four

Inmates are allowed all Level 3 privileges, computer/email usage, single cell occupancy, extended property allowances, and freely move around the institution. The idea of this level of status is that it allows inmates to essentially live life as they would on the street, but inside prison. They could craft employment plans for being released and even engage in employment to a certain degree (e.g., writing articles, managing a horticulture program, campus beautification, being on a board of inmate governors, etc.).

While these ideas could enhance the operation of an institution, they would all promote healthy interactions, allow the inmate participants to practice healthy living skills before release, and let the corrections industry teach and fortify positive life skills and social skills. A model like this would focus on self-improvement and professional development, not human warehousing or pacifying incarcerated populations until release.

If we want to see inmates do better, we must allow them the room to grow and the motivation (through rewards and sanctions) to do so. As long as we are complacent with the status quo – one which promotes little change and the kind of inmate who beats upon walls and screams for fun – we’ll continue to encourage nothingness and continue to see America’s incarcerated population grow ad infinitum.

On the other hand, if we implement the fundamental changes I’ve proposed, we might surprise ourselves.