Second Chances and Good Time(s): Transformations and Transactions in Prison

Three weeks ago, I submitted final grades for the January (J-Term) course that I taught at East Moline Correctional Center (EMCC) through the Augustana Prison Education Program (APEP).  I created the course, “Redemption, Reconciliation, and Restorative Justice,” on the “inside-out” model of prison education. The plan was to shuttle traditional students each day to the local prison to learn beside their incarcerated classmates. Sadly, EMCC nixed that plan earlier in the fall, citing a shortage of security personnel. When Sharon Varallo, the executive director of APEP, asked me to choose whether to teach the course to free students or incarcerated students, I quickly chose the latter. I knew from some prior experiences that deep transformation of individuals and communities is more likely—or at least easier to notice—when teaching behind bars.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s opening statement to Congress (2019)

Prison education does seem to transform many if not most students (and their professors) in deep, holistic ways. One white, middle-age student in my J-Term class wrote his final reflective essay, “Sweet Home Chicago,” about how his mind has changed about racism, reparations, and segregation in his home of Chicago. He discusses reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 essay in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” and watching Coates’s 2019 statement to Congress, both of which taught him about redlining and other exploitative practices that shaped his Chicago neighborhood into a segregated and impoverished place. The learning is painful, he suggests, requiring a good deal of unlearning what his family and friends had taught him. But the essay ends with a glimpse into personal growth: “I will be heading back to ‘sweet home Chicago’ [upon release from prison] and I now know that a viaduct is just a bridge with tracks on top, not a borderline. And bridges are meant to be crossed.”

Despite the warnings of Bryan Stevenson, incarcerated individuals are often treated as though they were nothing more than the worst thing that they have done. The mission statement of the Department of Corrections posted by the metal detectors at EMCC speaks of rehabilitation and reentry, but most incarcerated people have few opportunities to use the time they are “doing” productively—to say nothing of restorative justice and personal transformation. Many of them are hungry—starving, really—for the chance to learn, to grow, to become something other and better than “the system” tries to make them believe that they are.

Stories of transformation through education are rare, given the low percentage of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people who have access to higher education. The stories are also rather dramatic. David Staples, for example, began his Augustana education while serving 29 years for a crime he did not commit.  Having been released this past summer, David is now on Augustana’s main campus, pursuing his psychology major so that he can go to graduate school and become a counselor who can help others gain a sense of purpose. He spoke of the power of the program in an interview with our student newspaper.: “[APEP faculty] are serious, and they want to be a part of something that’s transformative, [something] that could probably change the trajectory of your life.”

Those transformations go both ways. In an early prison course I taught on vocation using Leading Lives that Matter as the textbook, I learned something about the richness and difficulty of callings in prison. Long before incarcerated people are released and return to “society,” they feel the summons from and responsibilities to their children, parents, partners, churches, and neighborhoods on the “outside,” as well as to cellmates, members of the men-mentoring-men support group, and others they shared spaced with (including security officers), on the “inside.” These early experiences taught me much about the complex spiritual and ethical lives of people whom I had assumed were just “doing time.” My learning was deep and transformative. I am a different person because of it.

Transactional and Transformational Leadership Styles

I am moved and inspired by such transformations. Still, I remain ambivalent about the way that I and others have talked about transformational education, especially when we raise that lofty goal by debasing everyday transactions. Don’t get me wrong: I do think that too many educators and students too often get too caught up in the bureaucratic systems of exchange that structure, track, and ultimately dictate the way we teach and learn (or don’t because the grade or diploma displaces that pursuit). And I do think that one of the most important ways that education for vocation functions in our institutions is to resist the pervasive assumption that education is an individual investment in a future that promises return on that investment. But these days I am starting to wonder whether the transaction-versus-transformation dichotomy is helpful and truthful or not.

Beginning my first credit-bearing class in prison in the fall of 2021 ready to transform and to be transformed, I was taken aback when our first discussion drifted into how much “good time” the incarcerated men would be getting. (“Good time” is prison language for time spent in reentry programs, which then commutes the length of the sentence according to complicated algorithms.)  I later also found that incarcerated students in prison are as or more “grade-conscious” as free students. I’ve watched incarcerated students appeal the grade of an A- with long, documented letters that resemble affidavits. These experiences were initially disheartening. Couldn’t teaching in prison be a step away from all the legalistic language of rewards and penalties and marketplace talk of exchange value? 

Prison education can be and is different. But the difference between transformation and transaction is never categorical. In fact, my desire for pursuing pure transformation apart from conversation about what students would get in return probably romanticized their motives (and perhaps their lives) while curtailing their ability to advocate for themselves. Incarcerated students should be able to get what they deserve in exchange for their participation in learning. Indeed, we should include with what “counts” as deep, transformative learning the newfound ability to pursue credentials and other rewards that they have been so often denied.

My ambivalence here—wary of transactional education yet noting its necessity, if not also its justness—seems a microcosm of many forces and debates behind prison education. Studies show that higher education in prison cuts back on recidivism rates by 43 percent and that every dollar spent on education saves four to five dollars on re-incarceration costs. This points to the worth of education and why legislators—especially fiscally conservative ones–are increasingly willing to invest in it. Still, the “payoff” of learning shouldn’t be reduced to the quantifiable.

One primary funding source for the program I teach in is the new Second Chance Pell grant. Even aside from the fact that many of these students never really had a first chance at being educated, I find the name misleading. Education at best is not an opportunity that is worth extending once (or once more) to individuals who prove themselves worthy. That seems much too meritocratic. What if we thought of education as a gift that is not contingent on the worthiness of its recipient yet that still inspires recipients to pay the gift forward with lives that serve the common good? Could we think this way even at private colleges and universities with their necessary language of personal return on investment?

These are questions that I have been thinking about for some time (see “Called to the Unbidden: Saving Vocation from the Market” from 2012). Teaching in prison has helped me to ask them from a different direction. I hope to come back to this oddity of understanding education-for-vocation as “a gift that you pay for” in future posts.

Jason Mahn is professor of religion and director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning at Augustana College, Rock Island, IL. His essay “The Conflict in Our Callings: The Anguish (and Joy) of Willing Several Things” appeared in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (Oxford 2017). He has recently authored Neighbor Love through Fearful Days: Finding Meaning and Purpose in a Time of Crisis (Fortress 2021) and co-edited So That All May Flourish: The Aims of Lutheran Higher Education (Fortress 2023). For other posts by Jason, click here.

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