The Prison Class: A risk worth the investment

Manhattan College thought it would be a good idea to send a few students to jail. Soon after, we, a Catholic institution in the Lasallian tradition, opened our doors to young men and women formerly incarcerated on Rikers Island in New York City. It is a program unlike any other in the nation. Why do we do it? The answer has everything to do with fallibility and risk.

Ever since human beings began to reflect on the experience of what it is to be human, they have always come back to the fallibility of life. For Plato, the world around us is illusory; only the forms exist and can be contemplated—and thus life understood—by only the rarest and finest of the human species. For the author of Ecclesiastes, all is vanity, a chasing after the wind. Jesus insisted that the healthy, the holy and those satisfied with themselves could never understand or embrace his message. For Augustine, it was original sin: life is both a grace and a crippling burden, given our flawed natural condition. Philosophers like Martin Heidegger argued that if one looks honestly at his or her past, there is only one possible response: guilt. Sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and even neuroscientists remind us of the durability of the old adage that no one stands taller than the generation in which they live, which is shorthand for saying that we make all our life decisions, as St. Paul said, staring into the glass, darkly (1 Cor 13:12). And then there are the poets. Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” And from the inimitable Oscar Wilde: “Each [person] kills the thing he loves.”

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Whether there is widespread agreement with the view of human nature just presented, I can assure you that the current system of criminal justice in the United States endorses it. A little known revolution was initiated in the turbulent years of the late 1960s and came to fruition a decade or so later. This revolution was sparked by the determination that the romantic image of police patrolling the streets and doing crime scene forensics—still wildly popular for many Americans—was a thing of the past; instead, the country needed a radical redirection of police energy into technology and surveillance. As a result, what the legal scholar David Garland calls “the criminologies of everyday life” were born. This shift was exactly what the late French philosopher Michel Foucault warned was about to come: a “disciplinary society” that controls not by stocks, whips and chains or, for that matter, special weapons and tactic teams, but with exquisite effectiveness by peering into the remotest corners of personal and social life.

We all know the results: the most aggressive and consistent escalation of criminal statutes, penalties and sentences in the nation’s history, perhaps in any nation’s history. Rates of imprisonment, as a result of what is termed “the new penology,” have increased more than 600 percent. More prisons were built in the United States between 1980 and 2000 than were built in the entire previous history of the nation. There are now over 300,000 laws in the United States addressing violations that could result in jail or prison time. The late William J. Stuntz wrote in 2001, while a professor at Harvard Law School, that we are fast approaching a state in which “the law on the books makes everyone a felon.” If I may quote Oscar Wilde again: “Each [person] kills the thing he loves. Yet each [person] does not die.” This is a poetic way of saying that we are all achingly fallible; we all break the law; but we do not all suffer the penalty for our crimes.

A System Based on Math

As one writer put it, the nets of the criminal justice system are calibrated mainly to catch only a certain kind of fish—namely, poor members of racial minorities. According to the Department of Justice, one in three black men and one in six Hispanic men in the United States will be incarcerated at some point in their lives, compared with approximately one in 20 white men. Blacks and Hispanics make up less than 30 percent of the population in the United States, but they make up two-thirds of the people in our jails and prisons.

Why are they the ones in prison? I do not believe that deliberate racism or an exaggerated misanthropy provides the answer. The answer is that the criminal justice system, like the health care system, the banking and credit system and the array of standardized tests that disproportionately influence who is admitted into elite colleges and universities, have taken their cues from the actuarial methodology of the insurance industry. The criminal justice system relies on a mode of analysis not based on morality, and certainly not based on sentiment. It is, quite simply, mathematical.

The insurance industry calibrates everything in terms of risk. We are all what are termed “instances of the population,” and each of us has a place in the risk pool. If you are low risk, you get insured and pay low premiums. If you are high risk, you either receive no coverage or pay high premiums. In the case of those who are poor, this assessment usually translates into no coverage. Very smart people figured this out. And it works. It works so well that virtually every major institution in the country has reproduced it in one way or another.

This analysis leads us to reassess the fine tuning of the technology of crime control. In the deep end of the risk pool are poor people of color. Since their circumstances make them least likely to master the complex social, linguistic, cultural and educational requirements necessary for professional success, and since they are already, in many instances, without credit and without health insurance, they are further and further isolated in poor neighborhoods with inadequate social services. And their at-risk status is the single greatest factor ensuring that their human fallibility and their criminal behavior merits imprisonment.

Before the changes occurred in the methodology of crime control, our correctional system was based on what can be termed “penal welfare,” based on the belief that people who are incarcerated are not evil; rather, they are, as Plato, Augustine, Jesus, Heidegger and Wilde would have said, fallible. And their mistakes could be corrected with counseling, job training and education, the most important factor. When the “correctional” system changed its operating philosophy from penal welfare to management of the at-risk population, there were over 300 prisons in the United States with higher education programs, in which incarcerated men and women, with the help of Pell Grants, could get a college degree. When President Clinton signed a bill 19 years ago to rescind these grants for prisoners, all but a few of the 300-plus programs were eliminated. This law was passed despite repeated studies that show, again according to the Department of Justice, increased education reduces rates of recidivism. Two-thirds of the 675,000 people released from confinement this year will probably be rearrested within three years, while those who attended college have recidivism rates at least 30 percent to 50 percent lower than the national average.

In the new approach to criminal justice, oddly enough, these seemingly counterintuitive measures make sense to people. Why? Because it has already been determined that those who have been designated as high-risk do not merit the privileges that come with being low-risk. And so, upon release from confinement, these individuals return to the same neighborhoods but under even worse conditions. Just as they cannot get credit or insurance, now they cannot vote or gain access to public housing. With a criminal record, it is even harder to get a job because they are, of course, a bad risk. Unemployment rates for those who have once been incarcerated are over 50 percent. And to complete the vicious circle, when a person steals or sells drugs to get money, he or she not only is arrested and sent back to jail, but the prior actuarial determination that this person was too risky to help in the first place is confirmed.

Back From the Margins

This understanding of the human person and analysis of the criminal justice system is the background for Manhattan College’s program called Engaging, Educating, Empowering Means Change, or E3MC, initiated in 2012. We wanted to do something to correct the tilt in the national ethos that poor people of color, especially those with a criminal record, are, as one sociologist termed it, “unmeltable” in the great melting pot of American society. For this reason, we sent some of our students to the Rikers Island jail complex to take a class with an equal number of prisoners. We wanted our students to come to know these unmeltable, risky people who have been judged unworthy of the social privileges our students enjoy. We anticipated our students would come to love their incarcerated brothers and sisters, and in their love begin to feel anger at the way so many millions have been dismissed, put on the margin and made to bear the weight of our frequent arrogance that proclaims that we, the free, are the ones who are good, and they, the prisoners, are the ones who are evil.

The program also creates an opportunity for the incarcerated students, upon their release, to attend a fine private college. This enables these young adults to prove not only to themselves but also to our society that they are as naturally bright and talented as the young people who are given a similar opportunity because they can bounce a basketball, or because their parents made sure they mastered the technique of impressing college admissions committees.

Manhattan College is now conducting its fifth class at Rikers Island. Thus far 46 “outside” students and 46 “inside” students have participated in the program. It should come as no surprise that all the inside students are black or Hispanic. It should also come as no surprise that all of the outside students have had a life-changing experience. Two of the young women who graduated in May 2013 are currently working as interns at the jail. They are among the many who now want to spend their lives caring for the ones so few care for. Most important, nine of the inside students have now taken classes on our main campus. We hope this is just the beginning.

There is, to our knowledge, no other college or university in the nation that has done something this risky. Or, to put it more accurately, that has done something so decisive to challenge the prevailing attitude that men and women who are incarcerated are the risky people. So far, Manhattan College has either spent directly or sacrificed by means of lost income a quarter of a million dollars to help change the lives of these young adults. This unique program is well worth the investment.

We are not a large institution with vast resources. We are a small Catholic college with a very small endowment, a big heart and, may I say, a great deal of faith that people will agree with, support and perhaps duplicate our efforts to change the culture of criminal justice in the United States from one of stigmatization and punishment to one of opportunity and care. It is a way of saying, again remembering St. Augustine, that there are only two kinds of people in the world: the good but not very good, and the bad but not very bad. What separates us is not that some of us are better than others; it is that some of us never have an opportunity to show how good we can be when our fallibility merits not a criminal sentence and a jail cell but a second chance and a college education.

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Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 9 months ago
Amen and Halleluja. Thank you Manhattan College for taking this radical "risk". THank you America Magazine for airing this kind of Christianity. Thank you Andrew Skotnicki. I look forward to reading your book and spreading the Word. This all just made my day and filled me with hope.
Chris NUNEZ
3 years 9 months ago
Thank you for this very insightful article. It's the source of my own research and work with the juvenile justice and delinquency prevention commission in my area. And absolutely, the actuarialism of risk is at the heart of the disproportionate number of poor youth being targeted for treatment or incarceration. From the classical criminology of Beccaria to the biological positivism of Lombroso, it only took another few decades for the 'risk factor research' of the Gluecks to create a methodology that rigged the game against these youth. It's not an insolvable problem, we just need a political will to change this, and lots of work.
Bernard Campbell
3 years 9 months ago
For the past 18 years, I have served as a volunteer at the NHS Prison for Men. A lack of education is major factor in the life of inmates. Another important factor, that is lacking in the life of many inmates is the absence of a good male role model. Also, they have a need for good female role models. It seems, based on informal conversations, that their lives have been influenced by mistrust. They have experienced a great deal of duplicitous behavior from the earliest stages in their life. This experience leads to mistrust in themselves. This personal mistrust, finally results to listening to the wrong advice.
Miguel K'nowles
3 years 9 months ago
As a Criminologist, I am fascinated by our corrections system. And the challenges we face as a nation in striving to make it better. It is a known fact that aggressive enforcement is a form of violence that only breeds more violence. It doesn't work and will always fail.
Miguel K'nowles
3 years 9 months ago
As a Criminologist, I am fascinated by our corrections system. And the challenges we face as a nation in striving to make it better. It is a known fact that aggressive enforcement is a form of violence that only breeds more violence. It doesn't work and will always fail.

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