Last month, a Bard Prison Initiative debate team gained attention and surprised the public by beating Harvard University. This was not the first time incarcerated college students beat a Harvard team. In 1951, students incarcerated at MCI-Norfolk in Norfolk, Mass., beat Harvard debate society in a debate about the welfare state. As a young man incarcerated at MCI-Norfolk, Malcolm X was a member of the Norfolk Debate Society. While incarcerated, Malcolm X copied the dictionary beginning to end, a painstaking effort to free his mind with literacy. He read and wrote voraciously, paving the way for his entrée into the Norfolk Debate Society and the publication of his autobiography. A New York Times review of Spike Lee’s 1992 Malcolm X biopic cited the restrictions of illiteracy as “a second, inner jail that could confine him forever.” Instead, he became one of the most famous freedom fighters in American civil rights history.
Malcolm X regarded the confinement of literacy as a racial prison, extending from inadequate public schools throughout American society, enforced by white supremacy. His words resonate now more than ever. In the era of mass incarceration, one in three black men will be incarcerated at some point in their lifetime, and 70 percent of black men without a high school diploma are in prison.
On October 30, 2015, the event “Conditions of Confinement,” organized by the Social Justice Special Interest Group of the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO) and co-sponsored by the Humanities Action Lab, gathered justice-oriented librarians and other interested parties for a panel discussion about access to information in jails and prisons. Nick Franklin, Brooklyn Public Library’s Coordinator for Transitional Services, explained BPL outreach to incarcerated New Yorkers. Franklin delivers books by cart to each building at Rikers, where there are no libraries. One regularly requested item is a 2010 NYPL resource book that provides much-needed information about reentry services in New York City. Access to information encompasses more than reentry support information. Literary resources provide mental stimulation, educational opportunity, and a cost-effective solution to reduce mass incarceration.
At the event, Johnny Perez and Linda Whitehorn spoke to their prison education experiences, and their current roles as advocate and organizer. Perez, an advocate at Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, recalled the prevalence of censoring in literature available to those incarcerated, and the role of censoring in defining and constraining the conditions of his confinement. Above all, Perez recalled the importance of books as essential mental stimulation.
Linda Whitehorn is an organizer with Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP). Incarcerated in 1994 when President Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (1994 Crime Bill) eliminated Pell Grants for incarcerated students, Whitehorn recalled women crying, mourning the end of their education, mental freedom, and hope for a brighter future. Less than one percent of the total Pell Grant budget, the loss of funding demolished the landscape of rehabilitation and opportunity for incarcerated people.
Education in prisons decreases recidivism by 40 percent. Improved job prospects and reduced incarceration make prison education a cost-effective investment. Lois Davis of RAND Corporation states that “[f]or every dollar invested in a prison education program it will ultimately save taxpayers between four and five dollars in re-incarceration costs.”
Bard Prison Initiative debate team’s success highlights the potential for greatness in incarcerated students across the country. More than half a century after Malcolm X liberated himself from the confines of illiteracy, black Americans continue to face lower literacy and higher incarceration rates than white Americans. Advocates and organizers continue to fight for equal access to quality education and an end to mass incarceration. Policy reform to expand education and literacy programs everywhere, including prisons, would decrease recidivism, increase educational and economic opportunity, and build a stronger, more informed general public.