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7 Au s t e r i t y b e h i n d Ba r s DOI: 10.7330/9781607324454.c007 The “Cost” of Prison College Programs Tobi Jacobi I remember the things my teachers used to say to me: “James, you’re special . Smarten up.” “James, you have so much potential. Please, don’t blow it.” I wonder what they would say now. (Castrillo 2013, 279) James Castrillo, “Every Morning” How can so many never have heard of an outline? Or a thesis statement , a semicolon, or a run-on sentence? I had never met so many intelligent adults whose basic writing skills were so poor and whose early educational experiences had been so utterly dysfunctional.” (Lewen 2008, 691) Jody Lewen, “Academics Belong in Prison: On Creating a University at San Quentin” The term austere might come to mind before one considers how austerity has affected the more than 2.4 million people behind bars in the United States: a monochromatic wardrobe; a bland and barely nutritionally -sound diet; a strict schedule for movement, sleep, even speech; an education—as Castrillo and Lewen suggest—arrested, perhaps, by circumstance . Yet, while the lack of material and physical freedom might indeed point to an austere existence, the systemic measures taken to construct such an existence are anything but simple and plain with an annual price tag that is well into the billions.1 One might say that austerity formally unlinked higher education from prison in 1994 when Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act eliminated Pell grant access for the prison population. What had been a robust and progressive system of US prison college programs was effectively shut down, falling from over 350 to fewer than 10 within a few years (Fine et al. 2001). Such programs had been growing and transforming educational access since the 1970s, offering a stronghold of prisoner Austerity behind Bars   107 access to associate’s degrees in the humanities and social sciences and, perhaps more importantly, contact with engaged teachers and peers who were committed to intellectual rigor and continuing education. As a recent Rand report documents, the 2008 recession further decimated the prison education opportunities that remained; in California, for example, funding was reduced by 30 percent resulting in the loss of 712 teaching jobs and forcing the implementation of new modes of instruction that reduced both contact hours and frequency of classes (Davis et al. 2013). What remains of prison education, as Doran Larson so aptly states in his 2013 collection of prison essays, is “a tattered map of private charitable work and the exceptional instances of progressive, state-­ sponsored efforts” (257).2 Amid those tatters we often find writing courses, composition teachers, and a highly motivated set of students. As this brief essay argues, prison offers a complex site for analyzing the relationship between writing, higher education, and austerity. The promise of education behind bars itself is enticing, so rich with promise that it often risks forwarding what Harvey Graff (1987) calls “the literacy myth,” as various publics seek to claim its agentive power. It will counter repressive prison policy. It will deter recidivism. It will combat years of abuse. It will free. Such lofty narratives suggest tensions between the institutional use and release of prisoners’ words (e.g., required disclosure of crime, scrutinized research) and the motivations of college programs (e.g., democratizing missions, reciprocal learning aims). As a required class for almost any degree, composition courses are often part of the core curriculum in these prison college programs. Indeed, writing—whether in composition classes or as part of other coursework—was and is central to the work of higher education behind bars. And as perennial underdogs , it is hardly surprising to find a cadre of composition and literacy teachers at the heart of many (re)emergent programs. Prison + Austeri ty = Fu eli n g Reci di vism in the Prison In du stri al Co m plex The prison experience is integral to American culture, H. Bruce Franklin (1978) has argued, “not just to the culture of the devastated neighborhoods where most prisoners grew up and to which they return but also to the culture of an entire society grown accustomed to omnipresent surveillance ” (643). This seeming comfort has resulted in a selective blindness that allows the “free” to adopt an often unconscious tossing of the keys to the cells that hold millions hostage at inadequate educational levels. Yet rather than safeguarding the wider population from physical...


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