Inequality incarceration and the hope of education
for higher education.”
What does this tell us about American society and its priorities? What might be some of the benefits to society of rethinking the relationship and place of higher education and prisons? Karpowitz makes the following point: ‘’Regardless of whether or not we have ‘college in prison’, the two institutions share parallel roles in the reproduction of American privilege and inequality. Indeed, the dynamics of contemporary American inequality most closely track two divergent life-paths: through college on the one hand, prison on the other.”
In other words, these statistical descriptions of the incarceration and higher education systems tell us a lot about the priorities of American society and how privilege and inequality are sustained.
But what would be the benefits of college in prison? What are the benefits of changing these priorities? One socially measurable benefit is its effect on recidivism.
In an interview with Emily Tate in
Karpowitz discusses the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) which is the basis of his book. He points out that: “The rate of recidivism at BPI, after 15 years, is about four per cent for those who participate and two per cent for those who complete a degree. The baselines are very high: recidivism is typically from 20 to 40 per cent. There are many ways to measure and mismeasure these effects, but there’s no question that engagement in higher education correlates with profound reductions in recidivism.”
So, there are socially objectifiable and measurable benefits to college in prison. However, Karpowitz points to three basic reasons why college belongs in prison which go beyond the argument made above.
The first is the moral argument which rests on “recognising that punishment is by no means the only or best mechanism for the pursuit of moral accountability”.
Secondly, there is the political argument. In regards to this argument Karpowitz quotes Winston Churchill addressing the House of Commons on July 20, 1910. Churchill argued: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.”
Karpowitz reinforces Churchill’s insight and argues that, “college in prison should be conceived less about how people in prison might change and more about how we, as a society increasingly defined by the scope and quality of our prisons, might change ourselves”.
The final argument Karpowitz offers for college in prison is not about crime and punishment but about higher education itself.
To maintain the commitment of higher education not just to excellence but also to inclusiveness as well requires seriously looking at where we could spend time and effort to advance an “inclusive excellence” agenda.
Karpowitz argues: “The perceived crisis in the academy is not about the poverty or ossification of our traditions but about our institutional failure to take the risks needed to find students in unconventional places and engage them at critical moments in their lives.”
Karpowitz makes an important argument which extends beyond the American example discussed above. It is worth reflecting upon.
There is a treasure, if only you can find it in the heart of every person.
A class in session at Kajang Prison in Selangor.