In 1931, Austin MacCormick, then assistant director of the Bureau of Prisons, published an article about the future of education in prisons. "In the prison of tomorrow," he wrote, "education will be taken as a matter of course. The classroom and the training shop will be built into the institution with no more debate than is given to the necessity of an infirmary."

While we are nowhere near MacCormick's vision, the recent joint announcement by the departments of education and justice concerning the provisional reinstitution of Pell Grants for prisoners has brought us closer. Meaningful reform, however, will require a shift in our nation's attitude toward the incarcerated, especially our assumptions regarding reintegration and personal transformation.


Although MacCormick was writing at a time when the number of adults in U.S. prison facilities stood at 120,000 — today that number exceeds 2 million — the most significant changes since then lie not in the numbers themselves, but in the rationale that fostered their rise and in the mindset that normalized them.

Consider the case of post-secondary prison education:

In 1991, 60 years after the publication of MacCormick's article, Sen. Jesse Helms introduced an amendment to eliminate federal funds for prison education. Although this legislation failed, three years later Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which barred prisoners from receiving Pell Grants. This legislation not only devastated prison education programs throughout the country (the number dropped from 350 to eight), its passage also marked the end of our nation's willingness to pursue meaningful rehabilitation.

Since then, criminal justice has focused almost exclusively on the unmitigated responsibility of the offender, resulting in a harsher punishments and a deepening disconnection from those who break the law, together with the belief that society has no role to play in working toward their future success.

Divided by a span of 60 years, what we find are two vastly different images of the American prison: on the one hand, a place of transformation, and on the other, a type of warehouse. Over the past several decades, society has not only permitted the establishment of institutions designed to sequester more and more people — predominantly poor people of color — from normal social life, but we have made this process appear perfectly normal. We have come to see mass incarceration as part of a solution, rather than as the manifestation of a problem.

And release from prison does not end social separation. Formerly incarcerated populations face a maze of legal restrictions concerning everything from voting to housing to employment — all essential to reintegration. We have, in effect, extended the prison wall beyond the prison.

These conditions must change — especially now that the U.S. is preparing to release more than 40,000 non-violent offenders from their sentences early in the next few years; 6,000 are to be released this month. Men and women released from prison deserve to return to environments where successful re-entry is possible. To accomplish this, we cannot rely solely on legislative changes. We must do work ourselves and see those with criminal records as they are: as equal citizens, as colleagues and, in some cases, as students. We should meet them not only when they return from prison, but also — more often and in more ways — while they are still inside. A genuine commitment to rehabilitation requires this, so razor wire no longer separates us quite so completely from 2 million of our neighbors.

I have taught in the Goucher College Prison Education Program (GPEP) for several years, and I know that prison education has its detractors. But not only have studies demonstrated the value of educational programs for reducing both recidivism and costs, education also helps dismantle the stigma of separation.

Many of the men and women who are in prison today were denied the opportunity for a quality childhood education. We do not all start in the same place, and this makes an enormous difference. "At a certain point," one of my former GPEP students said, identifying another form of separation, "you realize it's not only that you've been dealt a bad hand and that you can't win, but that you've simply been left out of the game." This does not excuse the crime, but it obliges us to admit — finally — that inadequate education is an injustice in its own right, and in this respect prison education also serves the interests of justice.

In the future, MacCormick's article concludes that "prison will be a place where it is possible, if one wishes, to make up for lost advantages or to add knowledge and skill which has already been acquired. Its educational philosophy will be to consider prisoners not only as criminals in need of reform, but also as adults in need of education."

I hope we have the courage to fulfill this promise.

Steven DeCaroli is an associate professor of philosophy at Goucher College. His email is sdecaroli@goucher.edu.