Educators in prison are a rare thing these days. Especially if you understand educators as those formally taught to teach. Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) FCI McKean is an exception. 

The prison houses a peer-facilitated learning program that allows its residents to teach not only academic proficiency but to form men at McKean into their best selves in prison. According to educators Keith James, Adam Clausen, Arturo Cantu, Chris Clemmons, and Anthony Boyd — all of whom are incarcerated — this model on the inside is possible because they have access to academic courses in prison through the University of Pittsburgh’s prison education program.

Prof. Tony Gaskew, the program’s director, has spent his life’s work dedicated to structural violence and social justice, and he concurs with his students-now-teachers. This model of peer-facilitated learning is education. And much more.

These peer facilitators benefit from access — college was also an option for them, and their work has found success and support on the inside. But plenty of men and women do not have such access. Higher education programs in prison are severely underfunded, stemming in large part from the 1994 congressional ban on Pell grants for students who are incarcerated.

Pell grants are otherwise open to the vast majority of students enrolled in college. The Department of Education claims that age, race, and field of study don’t compromise eligibility. Yet the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that black men constitute the highest rate of imprisonment by 3.8 to 10.5 times that of white men. And in the U.S., wide gaps persist in the educational attainment of black men.

Conventional data sources do not always link this growing education gap to prison rates for one main reason — statistics don’t include those who are incarcerated. This omission skews numbers around racial disparities in educational achievement by over 40 percent for black men.

The bottom line is that African American men are not only disproportionately overrepresented in our prison system; they are also disproportionately undereducated.

Given these numbers, we ought to be raising an obvious question: Can the Department of Education honestly claim that Pell grants are color blind?

Last July, while raising this very question, the Obama administration announced an experimental program to reinstate Pell grants, making the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program available to students in prison seeking college degrees. To date, the Department of Education has received 212 letters of interest from colleges and universities around the country.

For those already supporting higher education in prison, this is long-awaited progress that recognizes the power of education to transform lives.

But critics believe that the administration has overreached its authority, introducing bills like “Kids Before Cons,” and arguing that law-abiding citizens don’t want their tax dollars going to pay for education for those in prison.

Yet the Department of Education says it will not take any funding from non-incarcerated students, and law-abiding citizens’ tax dollars already paying for persons in prisons. Where accessible, education pays off: research shows that the state saves five dollars for every dollar invested in education in prison.

Why not support education for kids and for those in prison?

The logic of scarcity that pits youth and tax-payers against the incarcerated is the same logic that reinforces the racist underpinnings of the criminal justice system. Life behind bars is in many ways beyond the social imagination of most Americans — certainly of white middle class Americans. We don’t know what goes on in prisons, nor do we want to.

Research such as Michelle Alexander’s in The New Jim Crow surfaces underlying connections between slavery and mass incarceration in the United States. And Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? argues forcefully that America’s super-incarceration is a new form of slavery, and that the prison system is one of the most disconnected institutions from the lives of free persons.

This must be redressed. Education for persons in prison is good — for everybody.

A 2013 study from the RAND Corporation concluded that education in prison reduces recidivism by 13.8 percent. Beyond data, education programs in prisons boast of their power to transform lives. For example, the Prison University Project has educated more than 1,000 students in San Quentin State Prison. In the eleven years of the program, not one of their graduates has returned to prison for a violent crime.

Stories such as these are not uncommon among those who educate in correctional facilities and follow their students’ progress upon re-entry.

What is the gap in public opinion and how can faithful citizens address it? One way is by joining higher educators in prison and shifting the dominant thinking from reform to abolition.

“Reform” contributes to the problem in this climate of disparity and disconnection. Just as our 21st century sensibilities would not stand for “slavery reform,” we should not stand for “prison reform.” The only answer is abolition, including dismantling the entire logic underlying mass incarceration in the U.S. and the pathology that equates blackness with criminality.

Dismantling this social logic also reveals the importance of investing in each individual who is incarcerated, and shows the power of the Correctional teachers’ accounts of one-on-one peer teaching.

“Each One Teach One” is an African American proverb that originated during slavery, repeated as a reminder of the social duty to help each other along towards freedom. Whether slave, free, or white sympathizer, those who learned to read in the antebellum period were charged with teaching others. Those who risked punishment in order to teach knew that education was the path to participation. Those who risked punishment in order to learn knew that education was the path to freedom. Those who risked both found themselves in new spaces of shared power and relationships.

The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program cannot, by itself, change our logic of order and control. But it can engender individuals to seek educational pathways that dignify all human beings behind bars. Perhaps it can even re-animate the possibilities of education to abolish ongoing racial injustices.

This is education. And much more.

Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom is Professor of Theology & Ethics at North Park Theological Seminary, ordained to word and sacrament in the Evangelical Covenant Church, and author of Angels, Worms, and Bogeys: The Christian Ethic of Pietism and co-author with David Bjorlin of Incorporating Children in Worship: Mark of the Kingdom.

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