Prisoners need more than a taste of higher education

bridgingthegapA biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.

I came into prison in 2003 when I was 17 years old. At that time I was a high school dropout who had just received a 30-year prison sentence. I didn’t have much on my mind other than how I was going to do this time in prison.

One of the first things I did when I got to prison was get my GED. This wasn’t because of any determined drive to educate myself, but because the DOC [Department of Corrections] has a policy that prisoners have to have a GED or high school diploma before they can get a raise past 25 cents an hour for any job they work while in prison. It took me one month to get my GED, and then I was put to work in the license plate factory.

In 2005, St. Cloud prison started offering college classes after a few years’ hiatus, and luckily I was able to get in. I did well in the first class, so I signed up for another one. At this point I was still just killing time. I had no thoughts about what college would get me other than a couple hours out of the cell and some interesting pieces of information to learn.

After I finished my third class, the whole experience got real when I sat down with a student advisor and declared a major. When I did this, I actually felt like a college student. I actually felt like these classes might be leading to something. So I continued to take classes, and continued to do well.

But soon I came up against a wall. According to my degree plan I filled out with my advisor, I would soon have to start taking upper-division classes — classes that were not offered by the prison on-site college program. Because of this, I was not able to take the on-site classes offered at St. Cloud prison.

Soon after this, I was transferred to Stillwater prison and came up against the same obstacle. But I was lucky enough to have a family member who would pay for me to finish my degree through correspondence classes. In 2011 I started taking classes at Colorado State University—Pueblo and graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in social science in 2014.

That is a happy ending of the story. It seems like it only makes sense that if a person sets out on a journey he should reach his destination. Yet this same story ends quite a bit differently for the majority of prisoners who take college classes while in prison.

For most guys, they simply take classes and then hit the wall. They get about 40 or 50 credits and then are told that the classes being offered at the prison can no longer help them. And unfortunately, when they come up against this wall, many just quit, opting to work in the kitchen or on a prison industry job.

Others try continuing on their path of education by taking the quasi-accredited vocational programs offered by the DOC. These programs offer practical skills and may even help people get a job when they get out of prison. But an education, a true education, should do much more that simply get a person a job.

One of the most important things I got from going to college was an expanded view of the world. All told, I was transformed by my college education. I am not even close to being the same person as the 17-year-old kid who came into prison nearly 13 years ago.

Getting my college degree has changed how I think about myself, what I think about the future, and what my potential is. I have become a better writer and have a better vocabulary.

From taking psychology classes I learned why people think the way they do. By taking sociology classes I learned why society operates as it does. From history classes I learned how we got where we are today. No matter how hard I tried, I would not have been able to learn these things through DOC vocational programs.

Sadly, many men are not able to undergo this same transformation. It is not due to any lack of drive, determination, or ability on their part, but simply because they are being kept from the thing needed for the transformation to take place.

The Minnesota DOC offers only a taste of college when it should be offering the whole thing. If this were done, men would be leaving prison with a keener sense of how the world works and have a better sense of how to navigate it.

 

Matthew Moeller is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to info@voicesforracialjustice.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.