From the Editor: Prison education is key to creating a safer and more equitable Canada

(Konstantin Vasiliv @RESLUS)

“Taking college classes helped me forget that I wasn’t free.” This is what a former incarcerated person, Marcus Lilley, told a writer for The Marshall Project, a non-profit news website dedicated to covering criminal justice.

The publication recently released “Finding College by Way of Prison”, a first-person account of taking college courses as a prisoner based on Lilley’s experiences.

Giving prisoners access to education is not a recent development in criminal justice—Swedish prisons mandated vocational education way back in the 1800s—but over the years the bar has been steadily ascending for the quality of the classes offered to them. A Kwantlen Polytechnic University instructor named Alana Abramson has dedicated her career to making life more fair for prisoners and often introduces her students to those on parole and ex-convicts willing to share their stories.

Abramson is also a proponent of the Inside-Out program, a prison exchange at KPU which brings 13 of the university’s on-campus criminology students and 13 students living in prison together to learn from one another and earn credits towards a degree.

Reading what Lilley had to say to The Marshall Project about the joy, pride, and hope that taking classes brought him is moving, regardless of our ideological views as readers. He talks about how happy his son—who he hadn’t seen for over a decade—was to hear that he was in college. He talks about the rush of excitement he feels when he gets to learn about something new that he’s passionate about. He talks about his own writing, and how being more intellectually engaged while behind bars changes the existence of prisoners otherwise limited to a wildly unstimulating and impersonal environment.

It’s more than just an act of human kindness to make university-level courses available to prisoners, though. It also dramatically expedites the rehabilitation process for those preparing to adjust to living in the outside world again.

A 2004 study conducted for Probation Journal found that young, incarcerated fathers were able to develop their knowledge and understanding of parenthood through taking parenting classes while serving time. Six years later, The Journal of Corrective Education published a study that “offers strong support for the argument that it is far more profitable for states to fund education classes for inmates, for two reasons: first, doing so reduces recidivism dramatically, and second because educating felons eliminates the costs associated with long term warehousing.”

The Prison Studies Project also published a piece about this that reached similar conclusions.

“Studies conducted over the last two decades almost unanimously indicate that higher education in prison programs reduces recidivism and translates into reductions in crime, savings to taxpayers, and long-term contributions to the safety and well-being of the communities to which formerly incarcerated people return,” it reads. The report then goes on to cite several studies that support this claim.

The evidence is clear, and so is the humanitarian aspect of treating prisoners as multifaceted people with the potential to grow instead of faceless bodies in a cell. In Canada, the general public rarely talks about our justice system, but Statistics Canada found that there were an average of 120,568 adult offenders in jail on a given day in 2015/16.

Imagine how many of those Canadians could benefit from leaving prison with part of a university degree.

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