This is an excerpt from a larger piece, a compilation of interviews with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated folks in Texas, Illinois, and Florida. The full document demonstrates how prisons are extensions of the plantation and recreate the pre-1865 slave codes through unpaid labor, policing, isolation, abuse, and more. This particular excerpt highlights the way schooling operates in the context of the penal system as a tool of control, and how access to education is limited in order to control prisoners. In publishing this, we hope to draw connections between how the University and the Prison operate as two sides of the same coin determining who may access knowledge. We further hope this piece will draw students to adopt a broader perspective in their struggles, to draw connections with prisoner & abolitionist struggles. We won’t add much more analysis, since we think the writing speaks for itself.
Poor Academics and Vocation
Quoted from L: “They barely have school on the street know what I’m saying they don’t want to educate us…. (education) keeps you functional and motivated… like, I don’t have time for nonsense I wanna get educated.” However, prisons and jails are places for incarceration and exploitation, not places that offer education or is conducive to education even if classes were offered. R got his GED in a Florida prison, although with no help at all. R states that your success on the GED depending entirely on “what you already knew” because “nobody taught you nothing.” According to R, the prisons provided no GED training but simply said “here is a test here is what you got to do.” D shared with me that “When you get to a prison and you do not have a high school diploma, then you have to go to G.E.D. school.” Why might such an arbitrary law be enacted? So the state can point to ways it “helps” inmates while cutting a profitable deal with those mega test-making companies. Prison reform functions under the framework of how to make money for the state and how to pander to big businesses to form partnerships. The government doesn’t really care about inmate success on GED. There is no consideration for how an inmate and their education. Taking a test is not education. David says, “it could take a year or two to get in the (GED) class. They have 1 G.E.D. class twice a day and the prison population is 3,500.” These classes serve 30 men, a little under 1% of the population. Again, the state can hardly even back its claim of caring about inmate education and advancement.
US Slave codes outlawed teaching a slave to read and white; whereas this is not technically the case it is virtually true. Inmates are not granted education and state and federal courts have defended education systems in prison to where they’re essentially nonexistent.
From Stiles, David shares what he and others do in prison: “If you come here you’re going to work your ass off for no pay or get a G.E.D. and sit around doing nothing for how ever many years you have oh yea they have college corses you can take from Lamar University only if you have the money and smarts, and you have to know somebody to get in. It looks good on paper but it’s bullshit in reality.” David is going to be able to study for 2 years at Lamar University because in his last days in office, Obama signed the Pell Grant back into law so prisoners 5 years from their release can get free higher ed. This Pell Grant had been eliminated since a 1994 Congressional decision that defunded prison higher educations programs and made 58 of them obsolete.
There’s another striking similarity between the treatment of prisoners and historic slaves. Especially in the Southern Bible Belt, slaves could not read or learn about anything from their masters but the Bible. Today in many prisons inmates can only read religious texts like the Bible in solitary confinement. You will always be allowed to go to Church on Sunday even though educational classes are a rarity you cannot count on. Without making an attack on the church, I mean to say that it is a timeless practice of offering slaves “the word of God,” a perverse form of a religion colonized by the West which normalizes enslavement and incarceration, but no other form of education. I have never heard an inmate or ex inmate say that they received a meaningful, worthwhile education in prison or jail. In this society, diplomas come with fatter paychecks. I despise this system but recognize that we are all subject to the game. I believe everybody deserves the opportunity to gain this societal advantage. People deserve to learn and attain financial success, not be left behind while passing time in a prison. Most inmates are lower class thus have not been able to afford much education. This demographic of Americans should not be hurt even more by being denied opportunities in prison. They deserve for the government to invest in their communities, schools, job centers, etc. Not prisons.
Inmates seldom have access to vocational job training in prisons and jails either. Most inmates I spoke to didn’t have vocational options while in prison. A few inmates mentioned one or two trade options accessible with a high school diploma, but the minority of inmates have a high school diploma and even still the trade classes were packed and often inaccessible due to limited space and other regulations. David shares that doing a trade helps your chance of parole, but that inmates who don’t have a GED already struggle to get one in prison’s awful facilities and thus can never gain this chance to engage in a trade.
R said that in Florida, I believe at Indian River, trades were far and few between. They had masonry and HVAC(heating,ac, etc.) but you had to sign up for these and it “might take a couple months or years” before you land the position. R explained to me if you fight, even in self-defense, you will be sent to solitary confinement and will lose your spot on the waiting list, or you will lose any marked progress you were able to make in practicing the trade before. He said in some cases guards do not allow these punished prisoners to re-sign up for a trade.
David speaks of Stiles Unit, “They have no vocation training of any kind here to better yourself and learn new job skills. They have some ‘showcase’ prisons that offer all that good stuff, but stiles unit ainte one of them.” Another inmate told me, “I tried to sign up for barber shop course, but I didn’t get it.” When asked about these courses, he told me “I know a guy who was cutting hair in jail and got a license, and was able to get into shop and get a job afterward.” He spoke of this inmate as an exception, as if it is that uncommon for someone’s work in prison to actually transfer over to real life. It’s true.