Educate a Prisoner, Save a Life

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Photo by lehman-11 via Flickr

I would like to introduce you to someone who was once a menace.

Rather than describe him myself, allow me to present the portrait that his probation officer painted under oath:

Despite his small size, he is violent and extremely aggressive, particularly when caught engaging in criminal conduct. A hallmark of his many police reports is his use of flight, intimidation and violence to avoid apprehension [ ] He has shown a dogged persistence in coming back after a victim after he left the scene of an initial attack. [He] has proven that he is dangerous and capable of monstrous acts.

This is how the powers-that-be saw me 25 years ago.


Capable of monstrous acts.

That’s not “me”  any more.  The reason for the change is not hard to find: the higher education courses I have been taking during my incarceration.

It is amazing what an education can do.  It can transform the violent and ignorant into the peaceful and intelligent.

Such transformations support many prison reformers’ arguments  for making higher education available in correctional facilities.  With statistics demonstrating the negative correlation between education achievement and recidivism, it is, so it seems, a cost-effective means to protect public safety.

Personal experience is all the evidence I need to see the value of higher education.

Of course, many agree; but are quick to point out the scarcity of resources available to fund even the most basic correctional services.  However, what is often lost in this cost/benefit analysis is the money that would be available to reinvest in college programs behind bars if correctional systems finally abandoned efforts to change those who—quite simply—are content to continue the behavior  which led them to prison in the first place.

Getting twisted (i.e., using drugs).

Sending bitches (i.e., promoting prostitution).

Getting it how you live (i.e., earning money illicitly by any means necessary).

I have never been able to wrap my mind around why correctional officials believe they can force change on those who are committed to wrongdoing.  Nevertheless, they keep trying.

One of the purposes of punishment in Washington State is to “offer the offender an opportunity to improve himself or herself.”  In practice, the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) has transformed this legislative decree into a Don Corleone-esque offer that prisoners cannot easily refuse.

DOC uses a carrot and stick approach.

Prisoners can earn a small reduction in their sentence for every month that they follow the dictates of the Facility Risk Management Team (FRMT), which is a group comprised of the prisoner’s counselor and other unit staff, and outlines the programs the prisoner must complete in order to receive this “earned time.”  This is the carrot.

The stick involves disciplinary sanctions for refusing to abide by the expectations established by the FRMT.  Enough of these, and the prisoner will be transferred to ever more secure facilities until, in the end, he is confined in long-term administrative segregation.

All of this is done in an effort to mitigate the risk that prisoners will commit crimes upon being freed.  The belief is that requiring prisoners to work or go to school or undergo treatment interventions will reduce their likelihood of re-offending.

On its face, such policies are rational.  Nobody wants prisoners to rejoin society in the same sorry state they were in when removed from it.

But the fact remains that resources are often devoted toward recalcitrant prisoners whose words and deeds manifest their commitment to the criminal subculture.  Having watched the same people cycle through prison over and over again, it’s clear to me that this subset of individuals are a bad investment—with diminishing returns.

Moreover, history has demonstrated that even the rack-and-screw is no match against the conviction of true believers, and many prisoners are just stubbornly unwilling to repent for a life of crime.

You can spot them throughout the penitentiary, begrudging the policies that compel them to work or go to school or to participate in treatment programs meant to change them.

He is the slacker in the dish tank talking about how much “paper” he used to make on the streets.

He is the 20-something in the Adult Basic Education classroom spending the school-day freestyle rapping and sleeping.

He is the man in chemical dependency treatment tweaking on methamphetamines.

David Conyers was one such character.  I spent years as a Teacher’s Assistant at Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC), watching him spend the school day daydreaming and gossiping instead of completing his GED.

Years elapsed before he finally graduated; and the only thing that lit a fire in him to begin studying was the possibility of clemency—given that, fortuitously, he was among a small group of prisoners believed to have received a natural-life sentence under the state’s “three-strikes” law unjustly.

There is no doubt that decision-makers took Conyers’ (mandatory) programming in prison into account when deciding to release him back to the community, never realizing that he would put the lie to the correctional pretense that change can be effected through compulsion.

After the Governor signed his commutation and he transferred through lower levels of custody, he swiftly went on a robbery spree upon being discharged from a work release facility. 

Once upon a time, correctional systems had the luxury of trying to change such men. But those days are over.  There is no money left to continue such social experiments.

Arrogance and paternalism is a combination that is antithetical to fiscal responsibility and sound correctional policies.

The time has come for rehabilitative efforts to be devoted toward prisoners who have the most likelihood of being rehabilitated, rather than those who are most likely to re-offend. Moreover, such programs should be made available to those who seek it rather than mandating prisoners to participate in them.

Take the University Beyond Bars (UBB) for example.  Every participant in the UBB is there because they want to be, for this higher education program at MCC is entirely voluntary.  Even when college credit cannot be offered due to lack of funding, prisoners readily sign up simply for self-enrichment.

As a member of the Prisoner Advisory Committee for the UBB, I saw such men come to recognize their capacity to complete college studies; and, more importantly, conceive of living lives removed from criminality.

These are the prisoners worth saving.  It may seem cruel, but in an emergency, triage is about not wasting one’s time and efforts on the hopeless.  Correctional systems should adopt the same sense of mission and purpose.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

In such a correctional system, the necessary resources for prisoners to pursue higher education could actually exist.  It is worth the investment.

I used to be dangerous.

Now, I can effectively speak in publicI can present cogent legal arguments

And I’m a columnist.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he is currently serving 25 years to life for a crime committed when he was 14. He will be eligible to go before the parole board in 2017. He welcomes comments from readers.

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