"Prison" by babawawa is licensed under Public Domain (via Pixabay)

As we celebrate the great accomplishments of academic freedom in the traditional university setting, dark shadows remain for those of us for whom “academic freedom ” is a farce. We inhabit your prisons and ghettos; we are prisoners, immigrants, marginalized workers and often the disabled.

Education is often both the dividing line between people’s status and the catalyst to personal, social, and economic development. Yet higher education is not a sovereign right allotted to all U.S. citizens. Despite the efforts of human rights movements, politicians, and activists, a large and rapidly growing portion of the American population continues to be stigmatized as, in effect, non-persons, thereby alienating them from opportunities for advancement on a multitude of levels and from the true freedom such opportunities bring. A lack of academic freedom perpetuates social death and an endless cycle of neo-slavery for incarcerated individuals in the U.S. penal system.

U.S. prisons were founded on the premise of imposing power and maintaining control over oppressed people. Under the guise either of punitive or (under the “rehabilitative” model) “moral” reform, forced servitude of prisoners for the economic, political and personal gain of those in power was and is common practice. U.S. prisons evolved from beliefs that certain men possessed a sovereign right to opportunity, advancement, and entitlement to all the fruits of the land and the riches life has to offer, based solely on their origin of birth, biology, or divine ordinance and dominion. Such perceived rights fueled the creation and imposition of social hierarchy, with an elite minority dictating ‘have’ and ‘have not’ for the majority. Prisons became the viable answer to the abolition of slavery in the North, thereby continuing the cycle of ‘right’ to own, and force subservience over the portion of the population believed to be less than human and unworthy of the same quality of life as those in positions of power. In the South, convict lease and prison plantations were, as historian David Oshinsky declared, “worse than slavery.”

Little has changed over the last 200+ years in American incarceration, except that we are now incarcerating 25% of the world’s prisoners, at a rate seven times higher than a mere 40 years ago. Current statistics convey a sustained, abnormally high percentage of African-American and Latino men in our prison population, which is now in the millions and far higher than any other nation. In the last 40 years, the number of women incarcerated has also hit epic proportions. The United States is rapidly becoming a carceral state. Although the scope of some prisons has changed, the premise behind them has remained the same: oppression of, and economic gain derived from, those they hold bound, thereby perpetuating a vicious cycle of dependence, ignorance, enslavement and sub-human status upon prisoners.

Statistics have also shown that our prisons contain a substantially high percentage of illiterate, uneducated and under-educated individuals. Although hypotheses vary as to why people commit crimes, the undisputed fact remains that the majority of prison inmates come from backgrounds lacking economic stability, viable skills training, and higher education, all of which provide a foundation for individual transformation and the ability to contribute productively to the collective identity of a given society.

When analyzing recidivism rates of convicted felons, the number one preventative measure against future crime commission is a college degree. And yet college programming is scarce or completely unavailable to those who are incarcerated. Prisons prohibit inmates from obtaining financial resources through scholarships, grants, or the ability to apply for a student loan in order to advance education. Prisoners are prevented from working for legitimate wages to fund their own education, which would further allot them the ability to climb the economic ladder of success through advanced employment opportunities. If a college education is allowed to a prisoner, it is mainly allowed only via correspondence, and solely at the prisoner’s own expense. Prisoners are isolated from, and prohibited access to, resources providing a wealth of knowledge, both through printed materials freely available to the outside world, and by being completely cut off from technology and the infinite expanse of information found therein. Lack of access or understanding of modern technology alone becomes a social paralysis and eliminates an individual from a large percentage of current employment opportunities.

For the prison inmate, the lack of academic freedom is akin to the lack of freedom in the most basic sense, creating a state of existence from which there is no release. Psychologist Abraham Manslow’s hierarchy of self-actualization reveals that an individual’s basic needs of survival must first be met before a person can reach higher levels of creative, cognitive and intellectual functions, or spiritual evolution. If a person is without a stable foundation of basic needs, energy must be primarily expended in finding ways and means to have those needs met. This is where criminal behaviors come from for many felons. Once incarcerated, these same individuals then find themselves in an environment equally, or more so, encompassed in deprivation, and once again, the person must first and foremost strive to meet his or her basic needs before being able to seek out higher levels of existence. Deprivation of basic needs within the penal setting further perpetuates criminal behaviors.

The majority of U.S. prisons fail to offer opportunities for higher levels of personal enhancement, particularly in higher academia, thereby prohibiting inmates from having the ability to rise above a base level of existence. This also perpetuates the erroneous social stereotypes commonly associated with prisoners as being ‘animalistic,’ ‘heathens,’ and ‘barbarous,’ which in turn fuels and backs the system that holds them captive. It becomes a vicious cycle of stigmatization causing social death of a convict with the impossibility of rising beyond. The damning labels ‘offender’ and ‘felon’ further create obstacles that prevent an individual from obtaining work in a substantial number of fields, leaving only minimum wage options; prohibits housing in most neighborhoods, leaving only poverty and crime laden areas; and for certain felony convictions, prohibits formerly incarcerated people from receiving public assistance or food stamps, leaving an endless struggle to make ends meet. The list goes on, eventually leading to issues that cause the commission of more crimes. Without higher education to elevate options for higher levels of existence, a person is doomed to become enslaved by the system. On top of the myriad obstacles faced upon release, the system heaps exorbitant fines, fees and other extraneous costs on the post-incarcerated person, driving many into a pit of debt they can never fully escape. For many, the inability to pay the debt results in a return to prison.

Modern times have given rise to the prison industrial complex, human warehouses replete with modern sweatshops and a fresh market for neoliberal capitalistic enterprise through corporate privatization, either in whole or through part of the prison and judicial systems. For the majority of people in prison (those without the option of any higher education or the ability to fund their own education), only two options remain. One is a watered-down version of a vocational trade offered through a private entity far more concerned with quantity of program completions as opposed to quality of viable skills training guaranteeing work post-incarceration. The personal cost to an inmate to survive in prison due to privatization has reached astronomical levels, forcing most inmates to forego any educational opportunities in lieu of the only other option, internal work (often in the said prison’s factories) to support their needs. These rising internal costs have also resulted in an increase of further criminal and illicit behaviors among prisoners to meet basic needs while incarcerated. Monies generated from working prison (factory) jobs are fed directly back into the same chain of private corporations, eliminating any ability for savings for post-incarceration. Private corporations exploiting prisoner labor eliminate any corporation’s number one expense, the cost of labor, thereby increasing their profit margins exponentially. Forced labor and lack of academic freedom together create circumstances in which social and economic rise is impossible and the person’s enslavement within the system becomes a grim reality. Without the opportunity for higher education, a person lacks the freedom to break the bonds of incarceration.

There are those of us behind bars that have proven our worth in the academic realm and even have added to the collective pool of advanced thoughts and ideas. Whether by our lot of incarceration or through our inability to finance our educations, we are effectively barred from the academic freedoms taken for granted by those in the outside world. Yet still we diligently fight for those freedoms for ourselves and our fellow prisoners. Barriers to higher education for people in prison results in exorbitant costs to all of society in a myriad of ways, with detrimental effects rippling infinitely. To continue to deny academic freedom to a rapidly rising prison population, one most desperately in need of such, is to stand in agreement that it is acceptable to classify people as non-persons and exempt them from the rights of human evolution while condemning them to social death; to agree to the continued dehumanizing horrors of modern slavery; and to trap people in a perpetual cycle that bars freedom in every sense of the word. Who has the right to assess the value of academics, and the freedom to pursue such, if not those individuals themselves regardless of their circumstances?

Anastazia Schmid is a graduate of Ball State University. She is currently in graduate study in the higher education program at Indiana Women’s Prison. Anastazia is the creator of the “Get the Monkey off Your Back” community outreach project, and works as a peer facilitator and mentor with abuse survivors. She also works as a clerk and craftsman in the One Net–One Life Mosquito Net Project.