In your opinion, what is — or should be — the purpose of prison? In other words, how does incarcerating people serve society? What should prisons do for convicted criminals?
In “Turn Prisons Into Colleges,” Elizabeth Hinton writes:
Imagine if prisons looked like the grounds of universities. Instead of languishing in cells, incarcerated people sat in classrooms and learned about climate science or poetry — just like college students. Or even with them.
This would be a boon to prisoners across the country, a vast majority of whom do not have a high school diploma. And it could help shrink our prison population. While racial disparities in arrests and convictions are alarming, education level is a far stronger predictor of future incarceration than race.
The idea is rooted in history. In the 1920s, Howard Belding Gill, a criminologist and a Harvard alumnus, developed a college-like community at the Norfolk State Prison Colony in Massachusetts, where he was the superintendent. Prisoners wore normal clothing, participated in cooperative self-government with staff, and took academic courses with instructors from Emerson, Boston University and Harvard. They ran a newspaper, radio show and jazz orchestra, and they had access to an extensive library.
Norfolk had such a good reputation, Malcolm X asked to be transferred there from Charlestown State Prison in Boston so, as he wrote in his petition, he could use “the educational facilities that aren’t in these other institutions.” At Norfolk, “there are many things that I would like to learn that would be of use to me when I regain my freedom.” After Malcolm X’s request was granted, he joined the famous Norfolk Debate Society, through which inmates connected to students at Harvard and other universities.
Students: Read the entire article, then tell us:
— Based on Ms. Hinton’s article, what do you think she believes is the purpose of prison? What does she think prison should do for society? For incarcerated people?
— Do you think prisons should provide incarcerated people with access to education programs? Why or why not? How would this serve individuals and society?
— If you do think prisons should give education opportunities, how extensive do you think these should be? Should they offer college and high school courses? Degree programs? Books for inmates to educate themselves? Or, as Ms. Hinton suggests, should prisons actually look like college campuses — with classes taught by university professors, a student government, extracurricular activities and a library?
— Some lawmakers have opposed offering education programs in prisons, arguing that they waste taxpayer money on educating criminals, give convicts a competitive edge over law-abiding citizens in the job market, threaten prison security by encouraging protests and escape, defeat the purpose of serving a sentence and even make “smarter criminals.” What do you think of this reasoning? Does it change your mind or reinforce your opinion on educating incarcerated people? Why or why not?
— Ms. Hinton writes that “education is a civil right that improves society and increases civic engagement.” To what extent do you agree with this statement and why?
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