National Conference on Higher Education in Prison – Jody Lewen

The keynote of yesterday was Jody Lewen, Executive Director of the Prison University Project. After her speech, many people in the audience cried out – finally… you expressed what I’ve been trying to say for so long! It was truly wonderful to see her speak.

The goals of the Prison University Project are to:

The central goals of the College Program at San Quentin are to educate and challenge students intellectually; to prepare them to lead thoughtful and productive lives inside and outside of prison; to provide them with skills needed to obtain meaningful employment and economic stability post-release; and to prepare them to become providers, leaders, and examples for their families and communities.

Through the College Program at San Quentin, as well as other education and outreach activities, the Prison University Project also aims to challenge popular myths and stereotypes about people in prison; to publicly raise fundamental questions about the practice of incarceration; and to incubate and disseminate alternative concepts of justice, both within and beyond the academy.

Jody’s speech was on how higher education is transformative to students and teachers, but also makes systemic change to the prison system. The following is the notes that I took during her speech and with the following Q &A.

One of the first issues addressed was the concept / social notion of bad people who do bad things who deserve to be punished and need to suffer. This notion is diversionary to the true state of brutality that takes place during incarceration. This notion also places the prison system in the role of the hero by saving good people..

If you do question the prison system and how it works (even by suggesting higher education needs to be available) some people are angered – calling you soft on crime. But, as we fear “bad people” we are also profiting from them. For example, the media and also politicians are seen as saviors by pushing beds in prisons to be filled and therefor having safe communities. There is also the sentiment that punishment of incarceration “cures” evilness with being forceful and controlling; our society does not view justice without sentencing punishment.

Anxiety about prisons is justified by the argument that prisoners are doing the time they deserve. But if we treated our general population like we do prisoners we would see this treatment as inhumane.

The general public feels like they know why and how long people should be in prison without knowing what prison is like… and what services like higher education is like in prison… and what life and opportunities are like after prison.

There are many ways higher education challenges the Prison Industrial Complex:

  1. Education empowers people to develop strong oral and written skills to be heard in the outside word. This includes being able to find the words that you want to say. This is a challenge because the status given to prisoners usually denies their voice and position people behind  bars as important and valuable in society. These communication skills can be used in journalism, continued education, business work, etc. that will lead to their success that stems from encouragement and not punishment.
  2. Incarcerated students’ social and political networks & social capital are established in social institutions. For example, this increases voices in the academy to provide critical content in education in general that many people partake in, especially those who may not even see mass incarceration happening.
  3. Stereotypes fall as you meet people, see their faces, and know each other. Students behind bars just don’t become people for those on the outside, but relationships develop which create responsibilities to each other. Getting to meet students challenges individual beliefs that students are criminals and should be dehumanized.
  4. When a person involved in higher education comes into a prison to teach/tutor/observe, they are transformed; many people state that it is life changing. Once people have been inside of the institution  their experience and feelings will be related to their family and friends; a transformation that happens to one person by one visit can spiral outwards and change perceptions many people have about our students.

A question posed to this speaker was: What do you do with two groups that holds very different values (educators and prison staff)?

The answer discussed is that you don’t need to argue / lecture about the moral or right thing to do. If we honor staff’s experiences and opinions, the return will be respect and give your program a chance to run its course. Some officers see our opinions as privileged; for example, higher education may not be available to people in the staff’s family and community and it may be a challenge to see people behind bars having an opportunity for free education. Once your program is known, it will get a good reputation with the officers.

An other discussion piece was that we need to resist the narrative that these programs of higher education in prison fix people. We are not fixing them, but rather are refilling and reigniting.

Below is a short video so you could see a little about Jody’s program:


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