“Step behind the walls of our prison system and you will find that is where the government puts people… who are inconvenient – people who are mentally ill, people who are addicts, people who are shut out of a new economy – and this needs to change because, as a nation, we are in a bad place when it comes to incarceration.” – Piper Kerman, advocate for prison reform and author of New York Times bestseller Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, which became the basis for the Netflix TV series under the same name.
In 1996, Dr. Dominique Chlup, associate professor of adult education in the Department of Educational Administration & Human Resource, remembers teaching her first adult education course in a classroom that was unlike any other. To be sure, the gymnasium of Valhalla’s Women’s Jail in the state of New York was a less than ideal teaching space.
She recalls, “My inmate learners were not allowed to know my last name or any other personal information about me. I had to monitor the amount of paper that I distributed. I was never allowed to leave pens with my students, making it nearly impossible to assign written homework.”
As a doctoral student at Harvard University, she would go on to write several works on the history of the role of education in the rehabilitation of prison inmates (particularly women and girls), including her dissertation – entitled Educative Justice: The history of the educational programs and practices at the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women, 1930-1960 – which was named a finalist for the History of Education Society’s Dissertation of the Year Award.
Still, she credits her time at Valhalla’s Women’s Jail as being one of the defining moments of her career in education.
Dr. Chlup says, “That first job was the one that called me into teaching. It is the continual thrill, joy and reward of working with inmates that helped to keep me there.”
A LEGACY OF ADULT CORRECTIONS EDUCATION
Today, she would hope to see more educational programs in prisons but, historically, political leanings have played a large role in limiting what those institutions can accomplish.
She explains, “Historic links between prison reform and corrections education show that when a punitive approach (‘lock them up and throw away the key’) is ascendant, educational programming is de-emphasized.”
Once upon a time, she says, an emphasis on educational programming was actually the norm in correctional facilities across the country.
The amount and type of education offered in prisons have changed depending on the approach and philosophy to corrections that are dominant at the time, she says. However, for the better part of the 20th century, education was seen as a critical aspect of correctional rehabilitation, according to her research.
As she points out, even former conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger once stated prisoners should be allowed to learn their way out of prison. A surprising advocate of correctional education programs, Chief Justice Burger, who served on the Supreme Court during the 1970s, felt that prisoners are entitled to education programs. He considered it an injustice not to try to rehabilitate inmates while they are in institutional care.
At a fundraising event for The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina’s Women’s Fund in May 2015, Kerman echoed those sentiments in saying inmates “need to be recognized not only for their worst days, but also for their best days and the best things they are capable of going forward.”
On the historical role of education in such rehabilitation initiatives, Chlup says, “Earlier in our history, women’s reformatories were credited with having educational work serve as ‘the backbone of the institution’s program.’”
For the past few decades though, she observes, “At both the federal and state levels, current legislatures have been dominated by conservative members, who usually lean toward the punitive rather than reformative approach to corrections.”
Still, she is hopeful that change is possible, as she argues, “While we may seem a long way from that history, [recent success stories] suggest that the legacy of our past focus on education still persists, informing the work of many corrections educators today.”