Prison Education Program questions goal of incarceration
Jenny Brown

In the U.S. we imprison a larger percentage of our population than any other country. In California, the incarceration budget has surpassed the education budget. In Florida, the number of people incarcerated has doubled in the past 15 years. Locally, we've just spent over 40 million dollars on a new addition to the jail--which is already filled past capacity.

It's long past time to ask: are prisons having the effect we want? Is our society made safer, fairer, less violent and more harmonious by locking up more and more people?

In 1976, philosphy teaching assistant Pete Self walked into his Contemporary Moral Issues class at UF and asked his students, "Which six of you would like to go to prison once a week instead of coming to class?" All of them wanted to go to prison.

It was the start of a popular and successful program which would grow to 250 undergraduate students a semester teaching 26 classes a week in six different area correctional centers.

Self was part of a group of UF philosophy students and faculty who decided to actively tackle the prison question by bringing philosophical questions about crime, punishment, justice and society to bear on the question of prisons. What they learned about the myths and realities of how the prison system functions, and who is incarcerated and why, led to many positive community programs and efforts to show that there are practical, proven, positive alternatives to locking up more and more people.

Initially, Self took six of his students to the Alachua County Department of Rehabilitative Services Jail where he, philosophy professor Tom Simon, and two other graduate students had been teaching four pilot classes. According to Self, who spoke about the program at the Civic Media Center July 18, "A couple of the [UF students] did real well and I said, hey, they can run a discussion group. Much like we're sitting in a circle now, somebody comes in working up some material, brings in some photocopies, plenty of times the prisoners themselves would volunteer for the next week to kick it off with some research..."

Undergraduate students new to the program, called peer educators, would help out with the classes, prepare class materials, and lead some discussion groups. Those who did well would lead classes the following semesters. "Basically, the University students that went with us were called peer educators, and the rest of the people were incarcerated in the institution we were in. ...The ones that did well were invited to come back the next term and sign up. Also, we had a lot of students that would volunteer after they maxed out their credits toward a degree, and we had people working as researchers and evaluators, all sorts of different facets of the program."

The program had a profound effect on the teachers, the students, and the prisoners, according to Self. "The almost unanimous response from UF students was, 'This is nothing like we thought it would be, we had no idea, all of our ideas about what was going on in prison is not what's going on.

"Similarly, the prisoners would say, 'Wow, did we have a wierd idea of what university students were like. These people are a lot like us...I sat through ten classes with these people and a lot of times I made points that everybody stopped and thought, hey, that's a good point.' So the prisoners reacted, "Whoa, have I been tricked, I thought I was a piece of shit...I'm not doing bad at all.'"

"That's another thing that constantly, peer educators said, 'I never realized that some of the smartest people I met are some of these prisoners, some of them are incredibly sharp and they have 8th grade education or 6th grade education.' So why not let those people take a college class--they're thinking at a college level. ... And in terms of being able to analyze a situation, think it through and bring perspectives on stuff [the prisoners] were doing a lot of educating... because formal education and thinking don't follow each other."

"Among the peer educators, the group leaders, the graduate students, and the undergraduates, the thing I heard over and over is, 'We're learning more than the prisoners.' That was true to a large extent, and it was really important insofar as a good 20% of our students were pre-law or to some extent or another going into the criminal justice professions. So this was the only chance they ever had to interact with prisoners more on a peer level."

Prisoners received continuing education credit or Santa Fe Community College credit, while UF students received philosophy credit. Paul Donnelly, who was at the time an undergraduate and a teacher in the program, said at the Civic Media Center program, "We made no bones about it, with the prisoners or the students, that we weren't going out to the prisons to teach the prisoners anything other than what they might want to learn. We were going out there to engage in philosophical discussion, to learn some tools such as debate, or discussions on eastern philosophy is one class I taught, debate classes and public speaking classes that would help them with ... parole boards and disciplinary review boards and what not... the prison education was as much an education of the students as it was of the prisoners..."

Self said, "Once we got in class it was so important that we were an external delivery service, that the university and the college made it possible. Because when you work for the corrections system, everything is warped and skewed ... and anyone who's affiliated with corrections institutions knows that no matter how good-hearted ... there's a tension between the keeper and the kept..."

Who is inside?
One of the stereotypes that the students learned was wrong was the popular impression of who is locked up in jails and prisons. Most statistics will show that around half of prisoners are in for nonviolent offenses. This percentage has increased, however, as the "war on drugs" has escalated (see graph above). And "violent crimes" include resisting arrest with violence. Self commented, "Just because your rap sheet says violence does not mean much. Anytime the cops beat your ass they give you a violence charge. Like Jesse Jackson says 'aggravared assult against a cop means you aggravate them and they assult you.'" Robbery, which accounts for around15% of incarceration, is classified as violence because it involves taking something from a person.

Self says, "If you really sort it down to--not who gets drunk at home in a family dispute, two neighbors that have been pissed off at each other for a long time and it escalates--but the tiny minority of people that really would jump out from behind a dark corner and kill you for your little piece of change, the non-acquainted victim, I don't think it's more than 5%, somewhere around 5%. But everybody wants to treat the other 95% with that stereotype of a criminal in mind."

Race and economic status are major determinants for who ends up incarcerated. "Society's losses from 'white collar' crime far exceed the economic impact of all burglaries, robberies, larcenies and auto thefts combined" according to prison researchers Alexander Lichtenstein and Michael Kroll, in a 1990 American Friends Service Committee study of the prison system . Fifty-three percent of low-income defendents received prison sentences, compared to only 26 percent of high income defendants, in one study. According to Kroll and Lichtenstein, in the federal prison system, sentences for African Americans average 20 percent longer than whites for similar crimes. "If time served by African Americans were reduced to parity with whites, the federal system would require 3000 fewer prison cells, enough to empty six of their newest 500-bed prisons."

A major study of 350,000 young people found that drug and alcohol abuse by white students exceeded that of black students. Among adults, too, drug abuse is as serious a problem among Euroamericans as among African Americans. Yet while African American males make up six percent of the U.S. population, they are nearly half of the imprisoned population, and they are four times more likely to be arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced for drug offenses than whites. More than 60 percent of women in prison are African American or Latina--and the vast majority of women are in for economic "crimes" (such as shoplifting or prostitution) or drug offenses.

According to Norman Carlson, director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, "If you go back in history and plot the population of all prisons... and compare it to all the other variables you can think of, you will find a positive correlation only with unemployment. The higher the rate of joblessness, the higher the rate of prison commitments. There is no question about it."

Donnelly said, "We knew that the people that were prison were not necessarily the people committing all the crimes, because there were a lot of people out of prison that were committing crimes too. We thought it was very important that the [UF] students understand that." Both Self and Donnelly cited a study of the first year class at Harvard Law school in the late 70's. Donnelly said, "Every single one of [the Harvard students] admitted at some point in their life to committing a felony. We're not talking about a misdemeanor, we're talking about a felony for which you could go to prison. ... The study showed that if they had been fully arrested, fully prosecuted and sentenced for the crimes they committed on the average they would be doing 476 years."

Self said, "Every time you start a discussion on prisoners ... when you just talk to people that really haven't had much relationship with the criminal justice system, or you try to talk about prison reform or alternatives to prison, they say, how would you educate someone on death row? That's part of the problem, as soon as you talk about the alternative, people jump to the tiny minority of people ... What we learned is that people in the joint aren't all that different from a lot of us. They make a couple mistakes, they get caught. ... But the vast majority of people that are in there want to do something different, that given a break in society, that given any hope of a chance to get their shit together would jump at it in a minute."

Why prisons?
The discussions of philosophy in the prison classes naturally grappled with the ideas of justice that justify prisons. "The most important thing I learned is that the concept of justice that rules our society is way screwed up," said Self, who acted as the coordinator of the program for most of the ten years it was in existence. "Retributivism, the notion that the scales are out of balance, somebody's done a wrong to someone else then we beat the crap out of them to get them down as low as the person that was wronged, and then give them a little extra kick in the butt for having troubled us to start with. Well, there's a different approach to justice, and it's not just idealistic. It goes at least back to the Greeks. The notion of restoration."

"As far as I can tell, when people justify prisons, it falls into the category of, 'We're gonna get justice,' which would be: We're going to incapacitate these people so they can't harm society while they're locked up. Or, we're going to deter people by locking people up. Either we're going to deter that specific person, so when they get out they think, "Hmm, I don't want to go back to the joint, I'll never do that again." Or we want to deter other people: "Oh, John went to the joint for that, I don't want to do that." Or we want to rehabilitate them.

"And I would say, given all that we spend on prisons, it would seem that if none of those are working, or at least there's better ways to accomplish each of them, then we should just say let's find alternatives to prison.

"If for the sake of argument we say, 'Okay, we need to get justice, when somebody does wrong we need to screw 'em up, really mess 'em up.' Well, you don't need prisons. You could cane people, cut their hands off, whatever. Seems like if that's your goal you don't need something as elaborate as the prison system.

"Incapacitation is short-range because most of the people in the joint will be out within 5 years. ... You can incapacitate somebody for a little while, but if you take away their ability to function in society, inasmuch as when you get out you've lost your family, place to live, you have to put you're a felon on your job application... the result is to make society more dangerous, which is the same argument against specific deterrence. Yeah, you might deter a few people, but on the other hand you've made people so dysfunctional and so disempowered in terms of community ties, once again you're not accomplishing anything.

"..Everybody knows what generally deters you from crime is a stake in society, that you've got something to lose. If you're a calculating machine that thinks ahead, you'll be just as deterred by getting your name in the paper and called before the judge as you will by 30 years. For example, it's true I could go over and empty Barnett Bank if there were no laws against it, but if I did that I'd lose my job, and they don't have to give me 20 years, they'd just have to say, hey, Pete robbed this bank and it'd be over. I think general deterrence has nothing to do with locking people up."

Community Prisoners Action
Applying philosophy to the whole question of justice had an astounding effect in an atmosphere where there was so little reflection on the basic premise of the criminal justice system and prisons: "When you talk about what is justice and the balance of justice and returning harm for harm and beating the other motherfucker down worse than he beat somebody else down, or restoring the community being organism, where the wrongdoer is seen as a hurt for the whole and the the goal regathering of people back in, that's fairly profound reflection. And there's little reflection at all going on in terms of what's going on in the actual prisons.

"A lot of the prisoners were saying, 'Gee, what you say in class makes a lot of sense, Pete, but what are we going to do about it?' So Paul [Donnelly] was around at that time and together we started a group called Community Prisoners Action." The most visible project was a concert called Jam for Justice. "But we also started a neighborhood program that attempted to rebuild a neighborhood and give a model for restorative justice and sent four representatives to San Francisco to train for neighborhood conflict resolution, Community Boards." (See box page 9.)

"We also went out and did a lot of community education...dealing with stereotypes people have of prisoners. That's why a lot of ex-offenders have such a hard time in the community because of the stereotype. We took burglars into the community to tell people how to not get broken into. That was one of our most popular programs. I remember one guy said, 'Get a little Chihuahua. Cause these German Shepherds, I don't mind the German Shepherds, bang, I can shoot them easy. Those little Chuhuahuas, you can't shoot 'em without blowing your toes off.' He just gave them practical advice.

"The prisoners and the students realized together that things couldn't be changed, fundamentally, without community education. Paul pointed out that I'd forgot about a woman in Waldo, her husband was killed and she was left with little children to support and was really hard up, so we [the prisoners and students] did a car wash and donated the money to her."

Donnelly said, "We thought it important, through Community Prisoners Action and through the prison education classes, in our effort to destroy how prisons are normally used in society, to destroy the illusions that supported the prisons."

Back on the Chain Gang
Since the Prison Education Program was ended in 1987, the drumbeat has become louder for longer sentences, more prisons, programs such as boot camps prisons, bringing back chain gangs--with chains--and "three strikes you're out laws."

Of the 'three strikes you're out laws', Self said, "I don't think thinking people that understand the system really advocate that. And I think the politicians only advocate it because it's popular and it goes along with the retributivist spirit. But the people that demand that, I'm sympathetic, because the system doesn't do anything for the victim. So people feel so defenseless against crime. Foucault points out that in the middle ages regicide was the major crime, killing the king, but all violations of the king's laws were a crime against the state. So to harm an individual was only secondarily an affront to that victim, it was an affront to authority. The legacy of that is still very much in the prosecution office. In my own case, I got beat up by a white supremacist skinhead [in 1989]. I sued the judge and the prosecutor and never was able to get the hospital bill paid [for a test] that they asked me to go get so they'd have better evidence. [On another occasion] somebody stole my camera and the person was ordered $140 restitution. It was impossible to follow up and get it. So I don't blame people, I blame the slimy politicians."

Of other measures to make prison more intolerable, Self says, "90% or 95% of the people in there will be out in under five years. So do you want people coming out worse than they went in? No matter how much of a conservative you are, if you care about your society you don't want to further cripple people in terms of their ability to function in society.

"As far as I can tell since first penitentiary, Walnut Street Jail, in 1791, there's been two currents pulling against each other. One that wants to help people and one that wants to exact retributive justice. Some say you're sent to jail as punishment, some say you're sent to jail for punishment. The ones that think you're sent to jail as punishment think that being there's enough, and while you're there, any services that will empower you to be more functional when you get out--that the budget will allow--should be tried."

The prison education program, which was co-sponsored by the UF philosophy department, Santa Fe Community College, and Alachua County Adult Education program, was ended in 1987 as part of a UF administration clampdown on radicalism in the Philosophy Department in which the department was put into 'receivership.' "They studied for 3 years," Self recalled, "and couldn't really find anything wrong, but taking students into prison was certainly weird." The program was eliminated by pulling the graduate teaching assistants out of the picture. At the same time, the movement for UF to divest from South Africa was in full swing, and a lot of the energy appeared to be coming from philosophy students. UF was embarrassed when 26 students and a professor, Tom Simon, locked the front doors of Tigert Hall, and were arrested in a nonviolent civil disobedience protest of UF's ties to the South African apartheid regime. Looking back, Self says, "Ultimately the vision of philosophy as pure theory won."

But prisons are being built at a vast rate, while the crime rate is not visibly affected. And other programs that could have a positive effect are eliminated instead. "No money until 1999 at least, not a cent for education, all the money has to go to prisons," Self said.

Why are people easily convinced that more prisons are needed? After taking over 2,000 students to prison classes, Self says that the assessment by students was, "for a vast majority of [the prisoners], I can see how one wrong turn set them down a trail of inevitable consequences, and there's no reason that one other almost as fortuitous consequence couldn't lead back in another direction. ... But you get into any conversation on prisons, I guarantee it, you watch it, you try to get into a conversation about prisons that doesn't immediately turn to the most heinous type crimes we need to be protected against."

"If I were talking to a group of conservatives I would immediately--death penalty or no death penalty--what happens with people who commit heinous crimes, I just want to bracket that ... why not look at something that's working real well for 20% and then think about what do about this 30% and that 30% and then, if we're making great progress maybe we can be empowered enough to try something with these hard cases." Prisons are "just not working. And there are proven things that work. It takes practical know-how and some theoretical understanding." said Self. "I've never seen anything so ripe to be organized around that doesn't get organized around."

Some information for this article came from "With the Power of Justice in Our Eyes: A Handbook for Educators and activists on the Crisis in Prisons" by the Prison Activist Resource Center (PARC),P.O. Box 3201, Berkeley, CA 94703. A copy is available for loan to members of the Civic Media Center, 1021 W. Univ. Ave., 373-0010.

Community Boards: A model of restorative justice
It was the notion of restorative justice--and seeing that the criminal justice system was not actually dealing with the problems, that led students in Community Prisoners Action to launch a program called "Community Boards" in which impartial community mediators would hear a case outside of the court and legal system.

"You find out in so many cases of violence there's been a long history of an ongoing dispute leading up to it." Self explained. "So by giving both a neutral atmosphere in which they could express their point of view and facilitators validate each of them, as they lay out their position, people become reconciled. It doesn't mean there's no guilt, we're just not interested in guilt.

"If somebody stole the woman down the street's TV, we're interested in getting her her TV back and getting something positive done to heal her wounds and at the same time incorporating the wrongdoer into a community network.

"In the adversarial system, somebody goes away hurt that they're the loser and somebody goes away puffed up that they're the winner, and a lot of times it returns them to their communities with the same volatile elements unresolved and often antagonized, and that leads to further violence....We didn't handle that many cases, but the cases we did do got people to realize that they could come out with a win-win situation. We kept seeing this one neighbor, we'd run into him everywhere, and he'd say "you know that woman that I came [to community boards] with the barking dog, she's my best friend now... she walks my dog."

"It only works if the prosecutor lets go. It's not like, if we don't like the way this works out then we're going to go to the prosecuter. You have to have it outside the system. ... There've been cases of second degree murder in which restitution instead of incarceration has happened. Somebody in a barroom brawl hits somebody with a pool cue and kills them. What sense does it make to lock that person up for 15 years? The family has to go on assistance that lost a parent and the one that goes to prison leaves a family too. Everybody's left worse off."

"It's not just the power of the state to take it back over. If anybody demand(s) that their power or place in the hierarchy disadvantage the other person, then it messes up the process.

"They could actually be a very rich person with their Mercedes Benz, and a bank president, and a kid from across the town or down the street steals their hubcaps. If the person in the Mercedes Benz said, 'Well, all they do is turn these kids back out, so if I can get my hubcaps back and go to a meeting in which this kid gets coordinated up with something positive to do after school,' then it can work."

Photo caption:
Paul Donnelly (right) and Pete Self (second from right) speak about the Prison Education Program at a first-hand history program at the Civic Media Center July 18. Bonnie Flassig, not in photo, also spoke about the program.

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