Reversing the flow: channeling prisoners into college

A New York scheme creates pathways from prison to college, and now Britain is following suit

Professor Dreisinger at a conference on education in prison

Professor Dreisinger at a conference on education in prison. Photograph: Prison Watch UK

“What, you mean you’re surprised there are intelligent people in prison?” A rhetorical question, it is one all too often asked by Baz Dresinger.

Dreisinger, an English professor at John Jay College, Central University of New York, runs the Prison to College Pipeline programme. It’s a scheme that offers college courses and ‘reentry’ planning to prisoners across New York.

They take students from the outside into prisons to take classes alongside their incarcerated peers. “It is enormously powerful and effective for both those inside and out” says Dreisinger.

She’s been in the UK to promote her scheme and deliver presentations at Cambridge University and inside prisons.

Education is a civil right to all

Dreisinger is frequently asked why prisoners should have access to education denied to many of those who haven’t committed offences. “That’s not the point,” she says.

“I see this as a civil right. Many of these people have not had access to proper education. Or health or social care or equal opportunities.”

“Often they have been channelled straight from school into prison, because of the way they’ve been brought up, the way the school treats them for misbehaving, the whole culture, even down to the metal detectors in schools.”

The Prison to College Pipeline seeks to reverse the flow of the ‘school to prison pipeline,’ where low educational achievement and exclusion can channel young people straight into incarceration.

So of course it’s no surprise there are plenty of bright minds in prison, according to Dreisinger.

Fear makes money

“By locking these great minds up and denying them education we are denying society their gifts. To me that is a tragedy.” Dreisinger is addressing a group of prisoners and academics at a high security men’s prison here in the UK.

And there are some highly intelligent men in the room. We’re sitting in a circle of 30 people inside a common room and Dreisinger has just delivered her talk about how and why she set up the programme.

“Is it easier to sell your programme to society with the moral or the economic case?” an inmate asks.

Dresinger asks him what he thinks. “I suspect it’s the economic case, because no one really cares about prisoners,” he replies.

“That’s very profound,” Dresinger replies. “But then slavery was very economically feasible. And if we just think about money then we will always find new, cheaper ways to lock people up.”

“Fear makes money,” says an inmate. The circle nods.

Learning Together: Britain follows suit

Now there are schemes here in the UK taking a leaf out of Dresinger’s book.

This year two Cambridge professors piloted an initiative whereby 12 students from the University of Cambridge studied a criminology course alongside 12 serving prisoners at this high security prison. The eight week course, Learning Together, comprised lectures, weekly readings, group work, and a final essay to complete the course.

“The effect the course has on both sets of students is incredibly moving,” says Dr Amy Ludlow, one of the founders of the course.

“For the prisoners, they are given parity with Cambridge University students. They can say they’re studying a course at Cambridge University – something many of them would never have been given the opportunity to do.”

Dr Ludlow, who teaches law at Cambridge University, set up the course with Dr Ruth Armstrong, a colleague from the criminology department.”Education connects people in a socially transformative way,” says Dr Armstrong.

If you bring people together in certain conditions, perceptions and stigma decrease.”

The work being done in this prison is just the start for Learning Together, it will continue here in January whilst Dr Ludlow and Dr Armstrong hope to support the creation of new Learning Together partnerships across the UK.

Interest in Learning Together is growing and a discussion is beginning to emerge around education in prison. Follow the conversation from last week’s Education in Prison Round Table here. 

Learn more about the Prison to College Pipeline in this video:

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