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My view: Education beneficial to prison inmates

By Don Wright

Published: Friday, June 29 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Recently, the PrisonEd Foundation was featured on a news segment by Carole Mikita on KSL television. The story explained how PrisonEd volunteers help prison inmates become competent in a college course and arrange for them to take an exam for university credit.

It was fascinating that three-fourths of the readers who commented on the story were incensed that we would provide education to inmates. This is in spite of the fact that no public funds are used and that inmates are asked to pay what they can for the college fees involved.

More than 90 percent of those incarcerated will someday be released and become our neighbors. They will typically return to society with limited skills, a limited support group and a limited perspective of self and society. When released, the monumental challenges they face result in approximately half of them returning to prison. It has been demonstrated that the most effective deterrent to recidivism is prison education.

Let's look at the economics of incarceration. The annual expense of housing a prisoner is more than $24,000 (not counting initial capital expense). For every dollar Utah spends on higher education, we spend 41 cents on incarceration, and that is increasing (California now spends more on incarceration than higher education. See The Pew Center on the States 2008 Report.)

There are some who say, "Let 'em rot." Yet, what of rehabilitation and what of our humanity? What of the counsel, "I was in prison and ye visited me"? As a prison volunteer, I was permitted to teach a short-term, noncredit course at the prison titled, "Mentors from history that can change your life." Inmates read five autobiographies and wrote a paper on each. Their favorite was Nelson Mandela's autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom." It seems the fact that Mandela spent 27 years in prison contributed to their appreciation.

I share several comments from my incarcerated students. I ask, is providing this kind of experience beneficial to inmates and to society?

I share some responses here:

"Probably the most remarkable choice of his (Mandela) to me was the decision not to retaliate for past offenses but to move toward reconciliation. … His examples are a gift to humanity and all that it should stand for. All of these examples are the very definition of integrity to me. I hope to be able to exemplify him in as many ways as possible in my future struggles. I feel that I am a better person for my efforts to study his life." — C.J.

"I don't think it would have been good for him to miss prison. I think that added to his greatness. … Mandela will be someone I will keep in my mind forever. … The very most important quality that Mandela developed was integrity." — G.W.

"I've been most surprised to see how successful Winston Churchill, Mandela and Louis L'Amour were at such late points in their lives. I've always feared that getting out of prison in my 40s would make success too difficult, but since seeing these mentors not only persevere but also thrive, I have been uplifted." — P.P.

"I hope to change myself to be a better person and focus on the good in people just like Mandela did, and give people the benefit of the doubt. … Mandela has shown me that prison should only make a man stronger. … He has taught me to show kindness, respect and manners to everyone. … He has really inspired me to change the negative thoughts and behaviors that I face every day in prison. He also showed me to be personal and gracious in everything I do. Mandela is the most inspiring person I have ever read about. … It makes time a little easier to cope with knowing that something good may come out of this yet." — M.S.

Don Wright, Ph.D., is the president of PrisonEd Foundation.

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