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Prison & Education…

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face . . . forever.”     George Orwell, 1984.

(Disclosure: My 25-yr sentence to federal prison (I served over 22 of it; 1990-2012) was for a conviction for Cocaine Conspiracy. While we in the movement had eliminated powder cocaine from our “underground fund-raising” activities by 1983 due to the CIA and White House popularization of “crack” cocaine in order to fund the Contra-War against the left’s election in Nicaragua, I was nevertheless charged in 1989 with conspiracy. Refusing to take a plea and/or “cooperate” in the naming and prosecuting of others, Reagan’s judge in Detroit sentenced me to the maximum he could.)

When I went to prison in 1990, I already had accomplished careers in journalism in the US and Middle East, 17-yrs of criminal & civil investigations, and a lifetime of political organizing behind me (I was then 48). I had also completed 3 yrs at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Given the time and opportunity I had with a 25-yr sentence, one way I coped was with a determination to employ that time to complete my formal education. I saw it as a unique opportunity. The last thing I wanted was to do all that time and have nothing positive to show for it.

(While in prison, I published for my outside audience a newsletter called The Communique, from which this material is derived.)

Prior to 1995, virtually all of the nation’s prisons had local colleges offering courses thru the prisons’ education departments, largely paid for thru Pell Grants.  While less than 5% of the prison population ever availed themselves of such courses, studies have demonstrated a 20-to-60% reduction rate in recidivism among those who did.

The nation’s statutory laws have grown far beyond the incapacitation of violent and predatory offenders, variously estimated to be between 3-and-15% of the prison populations.  Most the vast majority of prisoners, the laws are of a consensual, socio-religious, public offense and class (self-victim) nature.

America has become the repository of the largest prison gulag in the history of the planet with 2.5 million incarcerated (almost 8 million counting those under other forms of criminal justice control, and the shifting youth and immigrant populations largely hidden from the stats).

Along with the industrialization of their labor (and increasing privatization), prisons are primarily vast warehouses for the social control of a surplus labor force (which negatively affects so-called free labor).  They serve as an explicit threat to any form of public resistance.

The Clinton’s passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994 (right-flanking the Republicans) and ended Pell Grants for the nation’s prisoners.  Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-RI), answered them and Congress by pointing out that never has even 1% of available Pell Grant moneys ever been used by prisoners.  (In any event, the money goes to the schools, not the inmates.)

Today, very few colleges offer courses in prisons.  The law then only mandated that federal prisons offer GED courses.  In my experience (as an instructor) they simply became another means for the punitive retribution upon prisoners.  Prisoners are also required to work a full-time prison job. Prison staff have a genius for turning anything into a punishment.

If a prisoner refuses or fails to comply (or given the amount of mental disorders, is simply incapable of doing so), s/he is punished by the removal of what few privileges they may have.  For neo-liberals and conservatives, privileges only exist as a means of social control.  “Rights” are totally foreign to their consideration.

(At one institution I was at–FCI Ray Brook, NY–the Supervisor of Education had college grads taking the GED exams.  That accomplished both his goal for a “successful program” (on paper) without actually supplying any education.  I refused and for a time was punished with denial of a pay-grade raise at UNICOR, the prison factory.  He and his assistant had a separate account downtown for the moneys in the programs, which they were stealing.  The FBI eventually came on site and arrested them.)

   In my own case, I was fortunate in several respects.  I had the earlier availability of the Pell Grants, and could afford correspondence courses thereafter thru generous family, friends and supporters.  These courses were thru fully accredited universities (Ohio, Illinois, and Pittsburgh Universities).  Wayne State University granted my bachelor’s degree in psych.

Despite the “mail order” epithet often attached to such course work at the time, legitimate schools offering such accredited degrees are far more difficult to complete than on-campus classes. In addition to all the usual text and research studies, the courses require far more essay work than normal classes.  Prisoner students are required to complete mid-terms and finals sent by the colleges thru proctored exams by the prison’s Education Departments.

Given that I had the time and could afford further studies, I also completed my master’s and doctorate in psychology (PsyD). On-line courses of any kind are not available to prisoners; we have no access to the Internet. This can be especially difficult for prisoners since the costs are the same as so-called free-world students, and graduate courses must also be completed in the standard semester time frames—with few extensions.

As it turns out, I was one of the last prisoner students to be accepted and graduated thru any graduate school program.  All students are now required to have on-line access . . . thus effectively eliminating advanced degrees for prisoners.

The hidden perfidy in the Clinton’s Administration–despite all the rhetoric otherwise–was that the Clintons were by far the most punitive and retributional (pro-recidivist) toward the nation’s prisoners than any previous Admin. They presided over the greatest increase in prisoners and prison-building than any others. Their “reforms” of welfare (esp’ly against children), the export of corporations overseas (NAFTA+) and pro-banking/financial institutions (the gutting of Glass-Steagall) was second-to-none.

Dr. Publico (Nick Medvecky, PsyD), April 2011…

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One Response
  1. […] Back then, practically all of the prisons in the US had nearby colleges that provided fully accredited, on-site college classes paid for by qualifying prisoners thru Pell Grants. […]

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