Over the last few days you may have read about how the inmates at New York’s Eastern Correctional Facility beat Harvard University’s top ranked debate team.
It caught my attention because that is the prison in which I learned to play chess.
Yeah, I let that hang there a minute, but it is absolutely true that when I was around 9 or 10 years old, an inmate named Fat Cal with three life sentences for murder taught me to play chess. My parents took us to visit prisoners from the time I was 8 until the time I was about 17. Later, my mother ended up teaching in prisons.
To be honest, my siblings and I thought it was pretty boring because there wasn’t a lot for us to do while our parents talked to the inmates. I can’t say the experience made a deep enough impression on us to keep us out of trouble, but it did prepare us for the hassle of current airport security.
I have written about arts in prisons before. In fact, my last post involved the guard union at Eastern Correctional Facility blocking a theater performance at their prison.
After reading the recent articles about how successful the prison debate team was, it occurred to me that prisons are a good venue for arts organizations that seek to make an impact in a receptive community. As the Wall Street Journal article notes, inmates live a life where few distractions are permitted. As a result, they invest a lot of focus in whatever interests them.
In my previous entry, there were people quoted as saying the inmates should be focusing on developing trade and technical skills which will serve them upon their release. However, a Salon piece discussing the success of the inmate’s debate team notes,
In an oddly backhanded way, the success of these programs reveals the importance of the humanities—those “useless” subjects such as literature, philosophy, and history–which educate the whole person instead of training a worker. For some inmates, Sax writes, their situation may compel them “to think about things more intensely than most people. A crisis like going to prison can move people to question everything in their lives.” As for providing a liberal arts education to inmates, he posits the question: “Are we doing it for the prisoners or for society? Both, but helping the prisoners is a more tangible and immediate goal.”
As for the value of this type of education, the Salon article also notes that the in Bard College program which coached and developed the inmate debate team,
Out of 300 men who graduated from Bard’s program, fewer than 2 percent returned to custody within three years; and Hudson Link’s rates are at 3 percent. Without education, 40 percent of prisoners end up incarcerated again.
Similar statistics are also cited in a Daily Kos piece on the story.
What is really interesting to me is that both time and education were cited as key factors in arts participation by the study I cited in Monday’s entry. The researchers in that study hypothesized that highly educated people who were not highly wealthy had higher rates of participation because they had the time to do so, much as the inmates’ success is partially attributed to having the time to devote an undivided focus on their arguments.
As a couple of the articles point out, despite lack of wealth remaining a factor for most inmates upon release, an earned education appears to be diminishing recidivism. Even though there is a lot of debate about the costs and value of higher education, providing a good education appears to contribute to the general good of society.
It isn’t really appropriate to make facile conclusions about the contributions liberal arts can make to criminal reformation, but clearly it can have an important impact. Nor do I want to make statements about education, rather than wealth or a lack thereof, being a key factor in deterring crime. It is pretty clear wealth and class strongly influence whether you will be incarcerated.
Efforts at introducing arts and education to at-risk communities can certainly also assist in preventing people from ending up in prison. Unfortunately, there are myriad environmental factors which may distract people from achieving the necessary focus that is subsequently forced upon them in prison.
For those who long to make an impact in their community and society, it may be worth considering how well working with inmates might help you achieve your goals.
I am sure there is a lesson in all this about how excellence requires more time and focus than we allow ourselves.