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Can prisons be turned into schools?

  • Published at 10:10 pm May 19th, 2020
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Photo: BIGSTOCK

Fighting crime with education

Prisons in Bangladesh are seriously overcrowded, holding twice their actual capacity. The criminal justice system, governed by laws that date from the 19th century, is inefficient, irregular, and anachronistic. Many people, particularly the poor, face severe violations of their human rights.

The Bangladesh government has been implementing a program titled “Justice and Prison Reform for Promoting Human Rights and Preventing Corruption in Bangladesh” since 2012 to reduce the number of pre-trial prisoners, who are often detained unnecessarily.

The program, jointly funded by the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) and Department for International Development (DFID), has seen a decline in the percentage of pre-trial detainees from 79 in 2010 to 62 in 2013.

However, the average share of pretrial detainees has not decreased since 2014. There is emerging evidence that the percentage of pretrial inmates in prison has been influenced by factors beyond the program’s control, such as political unrest and relocation of convicted prisoners.

However, the paramount goal of a country’s prison system should be preparing its inmates by equipping them with adequate skills that help them reintegrate into the mainstream society, instead of remaining a group of outsiders.

There indeed is a prospect of turning this large segment of the country’s population into a human resource. For that education and vocational training can play a very important role, as has been proven in a number of more developed countries in the world.

Elizabeth Hinton, an assistant professor in the departments of history and African and African American studies at Harvard, wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times:'

“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 who do not have a high school diploma. And it could help shrink our prison population.”

The idea is rooted in history, Hinton writes: “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…

“[T]hey 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.’”

San Quentin State Prison in California created a scaled-down version of the Norfolk program with support from the Ford Foundation, and it was one of the few prisons then that offered higher education classes.

Today, only a third of all prisons provide ways for incarcerated people to continue their educations beyond high school.

But the San Quentin Prison University Project remains one of the country’s most vibrant educational programs for inmates, so much so President Barack Obama awarded it a National Humanities Medal in 2015 for the quality of its courses, added Hinton.

The idea of expanding educational opportunities to prisoners as a way to reduce recidivism and government spending has again gained momentum in the US after a study by the right-leaning RAND Corporation was published in 2013, showing that inmates who took classes had a 43% lower likelihood of recidivism and a 13% higher likelihood of getting a job after leaving prison.

It’s clear that education will continue to be a central part of criminal justice reform.

Noah Freedman, the founder of the California-based company Nucleos, Inc that works with prison inmates, said in an article: “In countries which place greater emphasis on rehabilitation, fewer former prisoners go on to commit further crimes.

“In German prisons, a prisoners’ loss of liberty due to incarceration is considered the complete punishment, without the need for poor prison conditions or lack of education opportunities. And the numbers bear out the results: 33% of former prisoners in Germany go on to commit crimes within three years of release, as opposed to 70% in the US.”

Freedman says: “To be smart on addressing crime, crime needs to be understood as both an individual and a societal issue.”…“A lack of education and workforce opportunities is at the root of social problems leading to crime, as well as recidivism. As Michelle Alexander points out, in low-income communities across America, young men are more likely to end up in prison more than they are to make it to college.

“Multiple studies provide a conclusive link between crime, recidivism, and education. To address the root causes of crime, we need to shift the balance toward rehabilitation and education in our correctional system. A prison is designed to suspend freedoms. That is where the punishment should end, and an opportunity to reform oneself needs to begin.”

To provide that opportunity, Freedman says: “Prisons need to function as education institutions.”

Azfar Aziz is a Dhaka-based freelance journalist, writer, and poet. 

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