The Prison Industrial Complex and Higher Education in Prison

Hello people!

Today’s topic: the Prison Industrial Complex

So, I passed the college entrance exam for the “University Beyond Bars” and am currently working on my scholarship application essays.

This is a rare opportunity for any prisoner, even with the introduction of the Second Chance Pell Grant (which BTW I’m not eligible for) as well as not being eligible for most of the educational programs in prison due to me being LWOP (life without parole).

Here’s why:

As prisoners, we are subject to the limits of the correctional system we live in, commonly referred to as the prison-industrial complex. The PIC refers to all the various jails, prisons, courts, corporations, legislative bodies, police forces, and other interested parties that make up the correctional system. (Note: I’m not specifying between state or federal, American or world, for a reason.) This system is often discussed as if it were a centralized thing, as if in fighting it we could just get that one epic win like in the case of Skywalker v. Palpatine and everything would then be good and right in the world.

It’s nothing like that. In fact, it’s a bit of a mess.

The reality is that each part is separate from other parts. Yes, they are all interconnected; however, if you successfully cause one part of it to be changed that does not necessarily mean you may or may not have caused a change in any other part.

Let’s take the American system as an example; since I, ya know, live here, it makes me a bit of an authority on the subject.

The BOP (Bureau of Prisons) is the federal office that oversees, manages, and implements the federal prison system. And most states have a DOC (Department of Corrections) that does the same for each state. Then each county in each state has a jail that holds people who are waiting to go to trial, who are sentenced to a year or less of time, or have been transferred to the jail as a part of a deal struck between the state DOC and the county jail.

The BOP has a set of rules that it follows which are defined by the DOJ (Department of Justice), the federal courts, and federal law. But… each state’s DOC treats these as a list of guidelines. They instead take their direction from their state laws, their state’s governor and attorney general, and their state’s court system. Then to complicate things further, you guessed it, each county treats the rules of their state’s DOC as guidelines and come up with their own set of rules dependent on the whims of the offices of the local county seat.

Thus, while each one of these different parts are connected, a change in one does not mean a change in all. That being said, if people are willing to fight the good fight changes in one part can help efforts to cause change in another.

For example: in Washington, the King County Jail has been doing a fairly good job of getting transpeople treatment as compared to most jails for more than a few years now. And at the federal level they did away with the “freeze frame policy” for transpeople trying to get HRT in 2014.

Here’s the kicker…. It took three years of me fighting, and I don’t even know how many years of other people fighting such as Black and Pink‘s Seattle-Tacoma chapter “Choices for Safer Communities” (I wish I had their URL to give you) and other prisoners fighting for change just to get them to give us transpeople HRT and proper underwear. And strictly speaking, they’re half a—ing that!

Side note: I would love to list and thank all the people that are fighting alongside me for these changes, but we are all isolated from each other due to the Washington DOC mail policy that says we can’t write any prisoner even if they’re all in a different country. So I simply don’t know.

Now, where was I? That’s right… The compartmentalized nature of the PIC. So we had these changes in the federal system, and in King County Jail, as well as similar changes in the California DOC, but it still took a massive effort to get those changes instituted in the Washington DOC and we were only successful because we were able to cite those changes that had already occurred elsewhere. Think about that and consider that those very same changes have not happened in most county jails in Washington and elsewhere, or in a lot of states across the country. Additionally, this doesn’t even begin to consider the correctional systems of other countries. If I were to write a formula for the amount of work it takes to get any one change  in every part or the American system it would look something like:

(Federal + DC) x (50 x State + Puerto Rico) x ((average number of counties per state) x county) = a s—ton of effort.

This is why most politically aware people (including myself) say we need to just pitch the current system and put something better in its place. And “better” is generally meant to mean something that focuses on rehabilitation and not giving already traumatized people a major case of PTSD. But in the mean time, we can’t just ignore the suffering of the millions of people who are currently incarcerated in the US. Yes, that number is right. Millions. As in, if we hadn’t had our right to vote taken away when we were sentenced to prison there are enough of us to dictate every single popular election if we all were to vote the same way on any given issues. Granted, good luck getting any given group of people to all vote the same way on anything, but my point still stands.

I think I may have wandered into a bit of a tangent… Oops.

I swear this ties in to my opening comment about college somehow, I’m sure of it. Please excuse me while I radiate false confidence for a few minutes 😉

So we’ve got all these different parts of the PIC with different rules and no apparent rhyme or reason for why the rules are what they are today unless you do an in depth study of the history of each individual prison and/or jail in each part of the system. In short, it’s a mess. There is, however, certain patterns in the rules overall. Like how every kindergarten teacher writes their own rules for their classroom, yet every kindergarten class ever has rules against hitting or talking out of turn. The difference being the rules of any kindergarten are made to build community, and the rules of the PIC are designed to destroy community.

One of those community-destroying rules that most jails and prisons have is that they don’t want to invest much in the education of the people in their care despite a college education being one of the largest reducers in recidivism. So most prisons have minimal education programs, assuming they have one at all. In fact, Unloop and the UBB are not available in other men’s facilities in Washington state. The UBB isn’t connected to the Washington DOC at all, other than it being a college program offered in a prison. Unloop has a passing and tenuous connection to the Washington DOC in that they decided to partner with EdCC (Edmonds Community College) to offer web developer classes in the prison here at WSR (Washington State Reformatory) and EdCC has a contract with the Washington DOC to provide basic education such as GED classes and vocational classes here at WSR to anyone who isn’t a lifer or at risk of being deported. Which, for the record, is far more than is offered in most prisons in Washington state as well as other states.

This, naturally, begs the question: Why wouldn’t the PIC offer college classes to prisoners considering the effect that a college degree has on recidivism?

The first argument against educating people in prison is the cost. As every middle class family with a kid running off to college has discovered, college is expensive and those student loans are a lifelong debt. Why would we (the law-abiding citizenry) give a bunch of lawbreaking screw-ups something we can’t really afford for our own children?

Well, first off, do you want your children to get out of that oh-so-expensive college to be immediately made into the victims/survivors of crime? As things stand, all it takes to get released at their ERD (early release date) is to not get a bunch of negative behavioral reports and/or infractions and have a couch they can crash on as an “approved release address.” That’s it. Nothing about rehabilitation, education, or even making a half a—ed attempt at being a decent human is so much as considered.

So what would you like to have your tax dollars at work accomplish in regards to people getting out of prison? People who happen to manage not to die for the duration of their sentence and are otherwise unchanged from the person they went in except for, of course, a case of PTSD. Or, people that have worked hard to gain the privilege of getting released from prison through some sort of parole process that, for the record, doesn’t exist in Washington except for a few hundred inmates out of tens of thousands. In this state life means life.

But shouldn’t people in prison have to pay for their college classes like anyone else? This is a capitalist country after all. Well, Mr. Salaryman, I’ve got news for you. Most people that are sentenced to prison are saddled with a massive amount of crushing debt. My LFO (legal financial obligation) is comparatively low, at $56,601.14 as of July 11, 2017. That’s what happens when you’re initially given $25,000 of debt at 12.5% APY (average percentage yearly) compounded for a decade and are paid $.42 an hour up to a maximum of $51.75 a month. With a little math we find that the interest on my LFO was $3125 in 2008 when I was sentenced and that the maximum amount of money I can make in one year is $621, meaning even if I had put every penny I made towards my LFO, it would have taken me 5 years to pay off the interest from that first year.

If anyone has student loans that even hold a candle to that, please speak now or forever hold your peace. It’s not that people in prison are looking for a handout, it’s the only way we stand a chance is to take all the help we can get.

I hope this helps give you a bit of insight into what us people in prison are up against.


Editor’s Note: support Amber in funding her gender transition by sharing or donating to her YouCaring page.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s