The right to learn and grow
Once again, the legislature is considering closing the field offices of the Community High School of Vermont. Yes, this would save money; so would closing schools, fire departments, police stations. Government provides these public goods because we have agreed that we all need them. The Community High School serves criminal justice-involved adults who have been failed by our educational system. Many criminal justice-involved people have a history of trauma and often mental health or substance abuse issues, which means they need a more intensive and skilled kind of teaching. Arguably, these are people we should work the hardest to ensure have access to learning.
We need to provide more educational opportunities for people in prison and coming out of prison, not fewer. If we’re going to incarcerate people at all, we must provide real opportunities for change. Locking someone up in an inhumane environment with a near-constant threat of physical or psychological violence does not encourage personal growth. The fact that some people do manage to emerge relatively undamaged is an extraordinary testament to their inner strength. Most of us need supports for our growth. Education—exposure to other ideas—is key.
Here I mean education in all its forms, ranging from the kind of empathy-building liberal arts classes that teach both how to listen and how to express oneself thoughtfully and carefully, to hands-on programs that teach parenting and social skills, computer skills, job “readiness” and even actual job training.
As Vermont inmate Ron Unwin wrote, “When prisoners are released without any meaningful job training or the educational tools necessary to succeed they will inevitably fail. […] The truth is that the processes of programming, progression and rehabilitation hinge on the guidance and tools made available to the prisoner while incarcerated. If nothing is offered, or made available within these concrete and steel walls of deprivation, then the prisoner has little more to do than be idle. […] This shortsighted approach to Vermont’s prison model only exacerbates the problem of crime by perpetuating ignorance.
He goes on to say, “Opportunities for education should be commonplace in Vermont facilities, not simply an add-on should resources ‘allow’ it. […] If there is to be any hope in converting the criminal mind, Vermonters must give prisoners access to mainstream social activities the majority of indigent prisoners were deprived of in the first place. […] It is not how much time an offender does, but the quality of one’s incarceration that can determine if the person is redeemable or not. In the words of the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy: ‘Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long.’” Mr. Unwin concludes, “Well said, too bad few are listening.”
Well said, Mr. Unwin.