Foucault on School-Prison and Prison-School Pipelines

“So successful has the prison been that, after a century and a half of ‘failures’, the prison still exists, producing the same results, and there is the greatest reluctance to dispense with it.” 

Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 277

In my mini-review of Bryan Caplan’s polemic against education, I noted that he partly ignores Foucaultian arguments for schooling-as-discipline. But Foucault’s work is difficult to understand–though it’s actually written quite well–because it redescribes our ordinary world in terms that alienate us from what seems familiar. His understanding of schooling is dependent on his unfamiliar recasting of the prison as a site of innovation in discipline–techniques which ultimately had more value in the cultivation of good workers than in the punishment of transgression or the rehabilitation of criminal deviance. 

Consider these seven principles of penal reform:

  1. The purpose of penal detention is the transformation of an individual’s behavior.
  2. Prisoners should be isolated or housed together by the severity of their crimes, their age, and their progress towards rehabilitation.
  3. Both before and during punishment, penalties should be tailored to the individual prisoner’s progress and relapse.
  4. Prisons should be spaces of educative work, where prisoners are both required and allowed to work productively at learning or practicing a trade.
  5. Both prisoners and societies have a right to an education.
  6. Prisons should be run by subject-matter experts; professionals of high moral character.
  7. Upon release, former prisoners will continue to require supervision and assistance to complete rehabilitation.

These all sound reasonable, don’t they? Compared to our current prison system, they sound humane. And yet these principles were first espoused in the early nineteenth century, and have been reiterated periodically since then as if they were innovations. I pulled them from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (269-70). What’s taking so long? Why don’t we ever seem to achieve these ideals?

Discipline and Punish is a famous work on a major topic: it’s read widely and it’s one of the most-cited books in the social sciences. And yet its insight is both widely parroted and widely ignored–usually by the same people. One way to read the book is as a guide to sociological methodology: “the purpose of the system is what it does.” I also like the longer version from Dreyfus and Rabinow, quoting Foucault:  

“People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” (187)

What ‘what we do’ does

Everything follows from that dictum: we know what we do, sometimes we even know why, but we are remarkably ignorant of what our collective intentions and actions do.

Do prisons reform criminals? No: the five year rearrest rate for prisoners is 76.6%. Even if we correct that for the technical parole violations that are basically a product of the system itself (and I’m not sure we should in this context–the system has to answer for those reincarcerations) the rate is probably around the 43% baseline that RAND uses to assess the efficacy of programs. (College in prison reduces that kind of recidivism.) 

Can prisons themselves be reformed? No: the entire history of prisons is a history of reform after reform, and we’ve been facing the same prison problems–and demanding the same reforms–for centuries. LITERAL CENTURIES.

What then is the point? Prisons produce criminals, and not in the “finishing school for crime” sort of way: prisons produce a whole realm of knowledge about deviance, delinquency, and criminality, but they also produce those deviants, delinquents, and criminals as the subject of research that must exist to justify our inquiry into them. As a byproduct, prisons also produce techniques for managing students, workers, and citizens, techniques that seem to have massively increased productivity and effectiveness, but have the prison both in their genealogy and their current function. In fact, it makes perfect sense from a Foucaultian perspective to say that the technologies of schools, workplaces, and politics are the true product of prisons, and prisoners are the waste byproduct, an unrecycled remainder.

Unschooling

If you want to have some fun in the classroom, tell students that the way schools function is a lot like a prison:

  • Students are grouped by their progress through a fixed curriculum, but can be advanced or held back due to individual assessments of merit or deficiency.
  • Everyone has a “permanent record” that records a mix of talent and achievement (where there is a lot of confusion over whether what’s really being assessed is innate or the product of the training).
  • Many of the most important skills we teach in school are “soft skills” like punctuality, sitting still for long periods of time, deference to authority, and self-monitoring one’s own projects and progress.

Ask an audience in the middle of a class or lecture how many of them have to pee right that moment: we hate being reminded of our embodiment in those moments, but we’ve almost all mastered sitting for long periods of time despite that fact. Urinary continence is a skill that schools can teach, even if there’s not much evidence students will remember their calculus lessons if they don’t use them.

Schools and prisons both produce individuality as a category for praise and blame, wages and good-time credits, centered in a body and a set of behaviors, yet accomplished through a network of interlocking institutions and supports. Schools and prisons make us into the kinds of embodied minds that we are–capable of having a biographical records, capable of taking responsibility for the success or failure of our own careers and rehabilitation. And yet schools are a lot better at this than prisons, which is why we now find ourselves back at the idea that prisons aren’t enough like the schools–the same schools that prisons helped us figure out how to create. You hear now of the “prison-to-school pipeline,” a line I’ve used myself.

This spring, Elizabeth Hinton name-checked Georgetown’s Prison Scholars Program in the New York Times in her argument that we should transform prisons into colleges and restore Pell Grant eligibility for all incarcerated students. I am wholeheartedly committed to those goals–a policy for which I believe there is strong bipartisan support. But the this will not solve America’s prison problem–and in many important respects it is an extension of the logic of the prison itself.

Prospects for Reform

The other major claim of Foucault’s work is that prisons are unreformable–they literally subsist on prospects of reform rather than ever actually getting reformed. And when we do “improve” prisons, we mostly do so by developing new techniques for controlling prisoners’ bodies and cultivating docility and compliance in them. As punishment has become more gentle, it has become more generalizable!

Foucault’s argument suggests that the motivations of early reformers like Beccaria and Bentham was less to make the corporal punishment common in that era gentler than it was to make it more effective at social control. I think this is generally unfair: Beccaria clearly has civic republican goals in mind, and is a forerunner of so many different civic republican and contractualist positions that he deserves the benefit of the doubt. But again one can be ignorant of the purposes to which our efforts are ultimately put. And on Foucault’s view the gentler punishments of work, solitude, and surveillance all create new techniques and disciplines for managing all sorts of people: soldiers, factory workers, students, and patients, for instance.

Instead of seeing the ultimate end of the punishment reformer’s work as creating more liberty by restraining the cruel sovereign, Foucault argues instead that reform steals the domination from the sovereign–who after all is using her power inefficiently–and appropriates it for the reformer. The reformer promises to do better–and creates an expertise and a field of knowledge with which to chart his success.

So to recap: reformers don’t fix prisons, they’ve been offering the same complaints for centuries. (The same ones we offer today!) Reformers argue for smoother and gentler punishment techniques. They promise to be punish better and thereby steal the sovereign’s monopoly on violence for themselves. They install themselves as experts and create a field of expertise to justify their exproporiation of punitive power. And they thus increase the dissemination of punitive and carceral logics, making both criminals and non-criminals worse off.

This Thing Called Abolition

Angela Davis and Joy James are my go-to writers on abolition, but Allegra McLeod’s essay on abolition is really useful for understanding the terrain, responding to various objections, and showing the reasons why “abolition” has a valence that “reform” and even “decarceration” lack. But it’s Davis who takes up the specific preconditions of prison abolition:

“In thinking specifically about the abolition of prisons using the approach of abolition democracy, we would propose the creation of an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render the prison obsolete. There is a direct connection with slavery: when slavery was abolished black people were set free, but they lacked access to the material resources that would enable them to fashion new, free lives. Prisons have thrived over the last century precisely because of the absence of those resources and the persistence of some of the deep structures of slavery. They cannot, therefore, be eliminated unless new institutions and resources are made available to those communities that provide, in large part, the human beings that make up the prison population.”

Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy, page 96.

So long as we want the kind of bureaucratized social control that depends on the various carceral techniques Foucault details, we won’t ever reform prisons. Short-lived reform efforts will give way to long periods of basic comfort with detention as the primary mode of punishment, just as they have reliably done throughout the era of the nation-state. Build a society that doesn’t require docility and we won’t need to have zones for warehousing the least docile among us. But until we do, prisoners will always be with us.

I find little hope in these prescriptions. But I think it’s worth noting that the entirety of mass incarceration in the US post-dates the publication of Discipline and Punish. Whatever has gone wrong in the US (and to a lesser extent in Great Britain) was completely off the table when Foucault was writing–and thus we could eliminate the “mass-” or “hyper-” modifier, set most prisoners free, and still probably preserve our carceral society unhampered by the deeper anarchist impulses that seemed to motivate Foucault.

Keep the social control, jettison the prison. It’s not abolition–but I agree with James Forman, Jr. that it’s taken forty years of concerted local efforts to build the racialized mass incarceration of 2.2 million people, and it’s precisely the history of those seemingly reasonable decisions that provide a roadmap for mass decarceration. We should be so lucky to have Foucault’s problems.

Provoking pedagogically-effective discussion in college courses, with an example using Danielle Allen’s Cuz

Today is the first day of classes in my seventeenth year of teaching. I have taught a lot over those years–sometimes as much as a 5/5/1 (5 courses in Fall, 5 in Spring, and one over the summer.) My sense from that time is that the value of a philosophy course is largely not derived from excellent lectures on my part–but rather from an engaged seminar discussion. This is sometimes called “Socratic” but I happen to think that Socrates provided a terrible model for contemporary faculty.

Still, I think students learn more from what they do and say and write in the classroom than from what I do, say, and write. The kind of reading, note-taking, and preparation I do to give a lecture helps me understand material deeply–and it’s precisely that kind of reading and preparation that I want my students to cultivate themselves. In that spirit, I have developed a kind of “in-class” presentation which is both how I think of my own best classes, and also allows students to easily step into the role of “guiding discussion” themselves.

During the semester each student takes responsibility for a “provocation,” a written and oral project whereby they start off the class. This works best in small seminars under 15, but it can scale up to 30 with careful management. Each class period a student takes responsibility for kicking off our discussion of the reading with a short paper that briefly summarizes the argument, pulls a choice textual selection for discussion, and asks a provocative question or two, and then explains why this question meets three critera: (1) it is personally interesting to the student, (2) difficult to answer because it turns on a deep philosophical disagreement/confusion or rests on tricky empirical issues, and (3) important for directing further study and/or its answers will have implications for other relevant questions.

I always make sure to model these provocations for students myself, and indeed this afternoon I’ll be doing so using an article by Danielle Allen:


Danielle Allen’s “The Life of a South Central Statistic” is an excerpt from her book Cuz, which describes her cousin Michael Allen who was incarcerated as an adolescent for a string of robberies and thefts. Danielle Allen describes how Michael was locked up under the then-new three strikes policy in California (which also enhanced sentencing for carjacking) and how prison changed him—and how the relationships he formed there eventually led to his murder. Though he worked as a firefighter while incarcerated his criminal record kept him from taking firefighting up as a career upon release, and he fell into the drug trade. Though she lays some blame at the feet of the California legislature for meting out such a harsh sentence, Danielle Allen also describes the violence of organized drug trafficking as a “para-state” with twice the resources of the CIA operating in American cities to exploit and kill men like her cousin.

One of the more striking passages in the article is this one:

“California’s legislators had given up on the idea of rehabilitation in prison, even for juveniles. This is a point that critics of the penal system make all the time. Here is what they don’t say: legislators had also given up on retribution. Anger drives retribution. When the punishment fits the crime, retribution is achieved, and anger is sated; it softens. This is what makes it anger, not hatred, a distinction recognized by philosophers all the way back to antiquity. Retribution limits how much punishment you can impose.

The legislators who voted to try as adults sixteen-year-olds, and then fourteen-year-olds, were not interested in retribution. They had become deterrence theorists. They were designing sentences not for people but for a thing: the aggregate level of crime. They wanted to reduce that level, regardless of what constituted justice for any individual involved. The target of Michael’s sentence was not a bright fifteen-year-old boy with a mild proclivity for theft but the thousands of carjackings that occurred in Los Angeles. Deterrence dehumanizes. It directs at the individual the full hatred that society understandably has for an aggregate phenomenon. But no individual should bear that kind of responsibility.”

In the quoted paragraphs above, Danielle Allen seems to suggest that the political morality of deterrence is worse than revenge. Is the purpose of criminal punishment to prevent crime? Does this treat a person like an aggregate–a statistic–as she suggests?

This fascinates me because I am tempted to believe that the only reasonable use of state violence to punish is to deter worse behavior, but such efforts are often accused of dehumanizing the perpetrator. Yet revenge seems more dehumanizing, doesn’t it? Perhaps this is difficult to answer because the manifold justifications for punishment all speak to us at different times in terms of different crimes: when we see the individual harm to a victim we are much more likely to demand the satisfaction of our anger in revenge—but when we think about the ways that a deterrence theory might prevent some crimes from even happening it seems better than having more crime and more retribution for those crimes! I wonder whether there are techniques that could be used to combine these theories: perhaps there are ways that revenge is itself deterring—for instance it signals that crimes are unacceptable. But still there is more to deterrence than renaming revenge: for instance it might be the case that some crimes are difficult to prevent, while other crimes—which cause less harm overall—can be prevented best with really graphically shameful punishments. (For instance, perhaps slumlords are best deterred by being required to stand shamefully in front of their badly maintained buildings holding a sign indicating their violations.) There’s a lot of further study warranted here—and plenty of room for both empirical assessment and more principled philosophical exploration of the related themes.


This provocation barely touches the surface of the interesting themes raised by the article and Allen’s book. But it’s enough to get a conversation started, and I usually come prepared with four to six passages and questions like this for an hour-long class. Quite often I find that even students who are randomly assigned to provoke on some topic develop a semester-long fixation on the themes that arose during their provocation–just because the deep thinking and preparation required to write this short assignment and share it with others gives them a sort of endowment effect with those issues. Here are some more provocations on Allen:

  • Michael was technically a “violent” criminal but his victims weren’t really hurt. He was also a teenager, and perhaps less culpable than an adult in a similar situation. What should we make of his age in assessing his culpability?
  • Michael’s lover–and murderer–was a trans woman named Bree and there are all sorts of issues raised by her time in a men’s facility in California. Should Bree have been housed with women? What would have happened to Michael then?
  • Michael had a loving and supportive mother but her struggles with abusive partners may have contributed to his fate. Could she have done anything differently? And how do our public policies exacerbate these circumstances?
  • Some of Michael’s difficulties upon release are closely tied to the stigmas he faced during reentry. But others are tied to the fact that he fell in love with Bree while incarcerated–they are the results of the deliberate decisions of an adult man struggling to manage social expectations, economic needs, and an obviously abusive relationship with someone who he loved helplessly. What should we make of his story?
  • I find Allen’s discussion of the para-state endlessly fascinating and I wonder whether this is something that prison abolitionists should spend more time working on. Why does she name it a “para-state” and what should we say about the violence that arises from it? Does she partly exonerate the United States for its racist, mass incarcerating policies thereby?

The Enduring Appeal of Perversity Arguments and Unintended Consequences Warnings

James Forman, Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize last week for his book Locking Up Our OwnIt is well-deserved. That book–and his earlier work wrangling with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow–shows the ways that we have arrived at the wicked problem of mass incarceration through something much harder to disdain than evil scheming by distant elites. We did it to ourselves, and African-American political leaders did it with the full support of their African-American constituents.

Forman’s argument is sometimes conflated with that of Naomi Murakawa, who argued that it was liberals, not conservatives, who created mass incarceration by emphasizing the importance of safety over all other civil rights goals. According to Murakawa, when Lyndon Johnson championed the the 1968 Safe Streets Act which swelled the flow of federal dollars–and federally procured military equipment–into local law enforcement, it wasn’t just a capitulation to conservatives, but:

“part of a long-term liberal agenda, one that reflected a belief that federally subsidized police recruitment and training could become racially fair.” (73)

That is, according to Murakawa, Democrats didn’t adopt law-and-order rhetoric to respond to the policy entrepreneurship from Republicans that threatened to swamp them–they explicitly preferred more coercive and punitive state institutions so long as the men and women wielding the riot gear were racially diverse. By the mid-nineties, Bill Clinton wasn’t passing the 1994 Crime Bill because he got dragged there by Republicans, the Democrats lead the way–in fact the Senate version was sponsored by none other than Joe Biden. Murakawa’s conclusion is damning:

In the end, the Big House may serve racial conservativism, but it was built on the rock of racial liberalism. Liberal law-and-order promised to deliver freedom from racial violence by way of the civil rights carceral state, with professionalized police and prison guards less likely to provoke Watts and Attica. Despite all their differences, Truman’s first essential right of 1947, Johnson’s police professionalization, Kennedy’s sentencing reform, and even Biden’s death penalty proposals landed on a shared metric: criminal justice was racially fair to the extent that it ushered each individual through an ordered, rights-laden machine. Routinized administration of race-neutral laws would mean that racial disparate outcomes would be seen, if at all, as individually particularized and therefore not racially motivated.” (151)

James Forman’s book is quite different. Where Murakawa places most of the blame squarely on white Democrats, Forman places his lens on Black politicians in DC, and finds a very different dynamic. From the start, the story of the rise of racialized mass incarceration is a tragic story of reasonable and well-intentioned Black leaders fighting white supremacy and Black disadvantage with reason and evidence. They made deliberate choices that were well-justified and supported by their constituents. And incrementally, they made things worse.

DC’s leaders saw drugs like heroin as a scourge and heroin dealers as race traitors. They saw violent crime rising, and guns playing a major role. And they wanted Black police–because those were good jobs and because Black police officers wouldn’t be tempted to engage in racist practices. So they punished drug dealers and ultimately drug users. They punished violent crime and gun possession. And they did it with a Black-led and majority-Black police force. But still they ended up creating a majority Black prison population in our (I live in DC too) Black-led and Black-staffed prisons and jails.

Forman does the hardest thing in criminology and law: he adopts the stereoscopic vision that can see both from the perspective of those who fear crime and those who bear the costs of policing and prisons.* Black District residents know what it’s like to fear that their family and neighbors will fall into drug addiction or be the victims of gun crime. They also know what it’s like to fear that their family and neighbors will be terrorized by the police or have their lives derailed by imprisonment. And Forman is able to square those stories: see the victim’s fear and rage with one eye and the perpetrator’s circumstances and his community’s losses with the other. Alone, either perspective gives a flat, two-dimensional image, but together you get depth: three-dimensions of a wicked problem where values are always at stake but a way forward is possible.

The difference between Forman and Murakawa is that where Forman wants to tell a careful story about wicked problems and their double-binds, Murakawa seems to want to show up liberals (including Black liberal elites) as self-undermining and doomed to failure. This is Afropessimism at its best and worst: any efforts at racial equity are perverse and doomed to failure. I find such arguments deeply challenging when they come from non-white authors, which is why it’s important to me to think seriously about what a perversity argument is doing.

A perversity argument is any argument that claims that when we try to do a thing we believe is important, we will fail and make it worse, falling further behind as we try to move ahead. The actual use of perversity and unintended consequences arguments are often justified by some of the available evidence, as well as some of the speculative hypotheses: try to make someone love you and they will feel manipulated; create a minimum wage to help the poor and you’ll increase unemployment; try to reform the criminal justice system and you’ll just make it stronger and more pervasive; tell someone they’re wrong and they’ll sink even deeper into their error; try to engage in affirmative action to reverse racial discrimination and you’ll entrench stereotypes of inferiority.

Margo Schlanger’s 2015 review of Murakawa’s The First Civil Right has stuck with me for a while in part because I still occasionally hear people pushing the Murakawa line that Democrats and liberals are primarily responsible for mass incarceration, and thus can’t be trusted to reverse it. Schlanger has a great reading of Albert Hirschman’s work on reactionaries, radicals, and academics and our enduring love of perversity arguments:

Indeed, perversity arguments are appealing not only to reactionaries and the left-of-liberal left but to academics, irregardless of ideology. As Hirschman says, a perversity argument “is, at first blush, a daring intellectual maneuver. The structure of the argument is admirably simple, whereas the claim being made is rather extreme.” Perversity arguments are counter-intuitive, attention-grabbing. These are attractive characteristics for someone trying to stand out in a crowd of monographs. And sure enough, the attack on liberalism as perversely harming the disempowered has become quite fashionable in criminal justice in particular. Bill Stuntz is its most well-known (and least radical) author, but structurally similar claims have sprouted up all over, usually from the far left. These are arguments that prison conditions litigation causes an increase in incarceration, Miranda rights cause increased arrests, and so on. The claims are empirical—A caused B—but the arguments are usually a combination of ideological and hypothetical.

Perversity arguments feel smart and daring. They make you feel like you’ve seen a secret truth. But they also work to disempower and disengage. They paralyze us with fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Every step in the minefield of unintended consequences and backlashes is probably doomed, so the only safe thing to do is stand still. From the perspective of perversity helping hurts, loving hates, attacking strengthens, and truth-seekers lie. Nothing is what it seems, and everything must be viewed through a hermeneutics of suspicion that ends with a kind of paralysis or status quo preference.

But at the same time… sometimes everything is not what it seems. Sometimes our well-intentioned efforts do make things worse. If Forman is right, DC’s leaders were facing real crime problems in need of real solutions, and they built a tidy mass incarcerated city without ever seeking to do so. And his chapters on DC’s responses to gun violence, especially, strike me as importantly relevant to current discussions of gun control in the wake of the Parkland shootings.


*Another book that manages the “stereoscopic view” well is Danielle Allen’s Cuz.

6/7s Abolition

It’s France’s fête nationale–Bastille Day–marking the storming of the Bastille Saint-Antoine. The crowd of revolutionaries were mostly looking for guns and ammunition held by the garrison of soldiers stationed there, but they also suspected that the prisoners were being tortured. (They weren’t.) Seven prisoners were freed that day: four forgers, two mentally-ill people, and one aristocrat.

In the US we should celebrate today as Prison Abolition Day.

I consider myself a prison abolitionist in the same way that Angela Davis is: I think the United States massively over-incarcerates its citizens, especially its Black citizens. I think that prisons ought to be spaces of education and care rather than domination. And I think that our communities must be redesigned to prevent the crimes for which we send people to prison.

In thinking specifically about the abolition of prisons using the approach of abolition democracy, we would propose the creation of using an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render the prison obsolete. There is a direct connection with slavery: when slavery was abolished black people were set free, but they lacked access to the material resources that would enable them to fashion new, free lives. Prisons have thrived over the last century precisely because of the absence of those resources and the persistence of some of the deep structures of slavery. They cannot, therefore, be eliminated unless new institutions and resources are made available to those communities that provide, in large part, the human beings that make up the prison population. (Abolition Democracy, pg. 96)

But what this means in practice is that I wish the US were a bit more like normal, rather than such an absurd outlier. Rather than incarcerating “more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 76 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories,” I’d like to see us free about 2 million prisoners, so that the number is closer to about 300,000.

That’s still a lot of people, of course, but we currently incarcerate roughly seven times the global average of our population, without having seven times the crime. Our violent crime rate is on par with or even much lower than countries like the UK–though it’s true that our gun ownership rates make our assaults more often fatal murders–but we incarcerate many, many more people. So I propose we should start by aiming to shrink our prison population by 6/7s. This is an odd fraction, but it just represents the over-incarceration rate in the US compared to the rest of the world. It’s also deliberately a bit inexact: many countries have fewer than 100 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants. Perhaps the US could achieve the lower, more civilized rates of incarceration found in Finland and Norway, over time, but in any case, 6/7s abolition strikes me as a good place to start.

Sometimes I hear from other prison abolitionists that this is still 1/7 too many. But I don’t really know what to make of this. The majority of American prisoners are incarcerated for violent crimes, and I don’t know what it means to wish for impunity or restorative justice in every such case. Surely some people deserve some punishment; all I ask is that we radically remake the entire carceral character of American life.

This means drastically lower sentences: closer to the sentences prisoners served in the 1970s than the ones they serve today. It means prosecuting fewer crimes, too. But it doesn’t mean sacrificing our safety: it means focusing policing and imprisonment on the kinds of wonkish policies that we know work, while reinvesting the savings from incarceration in social supports.

Of the seven prisoners at the Bastille, I propose that one–perhaps the stray aristocrat, the Comte de Solages, who some records suggest was a rapist and attempted murderer and whose noble birth very nearly granted him impunity–deserved to be there. For the sake of the other six, however, we must still storm the carceral state!

“Expanding College Opportunity in Our Nation’s Prisons”

For more than five years now, “expanding college opportunity in [one of] our nation’s prisons” has been my part time job, and it’s been my full-time job for the past year, since the JCI Scholars Program partnered with the University of Baltimore to offer courses towards a Bachelor’s degree in Community Studies and Civic Engagement as a part of the US Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative.

I visited the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor last week to participate on a panel with this title. I learned a lot from my co-panelists Erin Castro and Fred Patrick, but each of us were asked to prepare answers to the questions below so I thought I’d share those answers here.

If you had to describe the current relationship between higher education and prisons in one phrase, what would it be?

“Low hanging fruit:” College in prisons is the easiest and most obvious of a host of criminal justice reforms that we absolutely must be making and for which there is bipartisan support. We incarcerate 2.3 million people in the US, at a rate more than seven times higher than the global average. We’re not seven times more violent or larcenous than the rest of the world–perhaps we are seven times more racist, but even that isn’t clear any longer–so we need to fix this over-incarceration crisis. But for the time being, educating the people we incarcerate is almost literally the least we can do.

There is an eternal tension in higher education between the liberal arts and practical arts. Prison education programs often face this same tension. Based on your experiences, how has this divide manifested in prison education programs? Are there certain curricula that tend to receive broader support? How has this influenced your own work?

In the background here is that we don’t stop punishing people when they are released from prison. We continue to subject returning citizens to legal discrimination in employment, merely because of their status as previously-incarcerated.

There’s certainly good evidence that starting one’s own business is a good way to avoid employment discrimination. But most small businesses fail, and returning citizens face problems with raising startup capital that are just as onerous as their problems finding a job. 

In general, you can think of entrepreneurship as evidence that the ordinary labor market is absorbing workers too slowly: there is not sufficient labor market absorption for those currently unemployed, so they must instead go out and start small businesses of their own, taking considerably more risk with high rates of failure. We have not found meaningful work for many men and women, and we’re not willing to suspend our biases, and so we ask them instead to make their own.

Still, even in that context I see the liberal arts degree as superior. I think the data suggest that even for people who want a vocation, a liberal arts degree is the best investment. I’m partial to the philosophy major, myself: employment prospects and pay are better for the modal philosophy major than for the modal business administration major, because the liberal arts are techniques for problem solving, clear communication, and understanding difficult texts and situations. To achieve that, students need to learn to read hard books and write long papers for demanding professors.

Of course, the liberal arts are also–literally–techniques for freedom and for free people. So they’ve got that going for them, too, which is nice.

What are some of the ways in which prisoner education programs help prisoners identify and pursue educational opportunities upon reentry?

In some sense I think colleges have mastered a lot of the fundamentals of reentry because they are already basically institutions of ENTRY: colleges are pretty good at taking high school students and turning them into workers, and they’re also pretty good at preparing people who are accustomed to being dependents to live more independent lives. 

Our program at the University of Baltimore was built from the ground up with the ideal of having students transition from inside to outside while finishing their degree. Thus they’ll be able to use what is already a good transitional space, the university, to help accomplish that other kind of transition: reentry and return.

The audience today is full of current and future educators that may be considering how they can get involved with a prison education program. As you reflect on your own experiences, are there moments that stand out to you as particularly informative for those in the audience?

I started teaching a philosophy class and ended up running a program. There’s tremendous unmet demand among those 2.3 million incarcerated men and women for a college education. Be patient and persistent, recognizing the work comes before your ego, and find and cultivate collaborators.

We also have a lot of people here interested in research and policies that can shape prison education programs. What are the types of research questions the next generation of researchers should consider?

The GED test was once an important distinction, but it was basically devalued because it came to be associated with returning citizens, which is why they decided to raise the standards (to make it much more difficult and specifically to lower the pass rate) in 2014. Will something similar happen with our programs? Can we prevent that? 

Another important question has to do with selection effects. How much are we just finding the men and women who would have gone to university, if we didn’t live in a mass incarceration society? How much are we actually changing lives, adding value,” or changing the course of these men’s lives?

There’s very good reason–as Erin Castro reminded us during the panel–to look past the recidivism question: “We don’t evaluate a University of Michigan degree based on how likely its graduates are to later become incarcerated.” And while I do think that the recidivism statistics are awesome trump cards for the public policy debate, I would like to see my own program evaluated on other metrics, like student satisfaction, just as programs on the outside are evaluated.

Given the change in administration, should we be concerned about the future of the Second Chance Pell pilot program?

Of course we should be concerned! Yet Betsy DeVos has not, to my knowledge, commented on the Second Chance Pell experiment. It’s notable that she is also primarily devoted to school choice in K-12, which is literally modeled on Pell, a grant program that supplies school choice for higher education.

If this becomes a partisan issue, I don’t expect it to survive. But I’d like to think it won’t become partisan, that there’s still enough bipartisan support for this because it’s such low-hanging fruit, because the evidence makes it common-sense. If you’re committed to small government, you like prison education. If you’re committed to social justice, you like prison education. What else can you think of that the Koch brothers agree with George Soros about?

“That man who has nothing to lose:” Black Americans and Superfluousness

Long before white Americans felt like their society had abandoned them, Black Americans knew the feeling. Just like whites do today, some Black Americans responded to earlier superfluousness by “clinging to guns and religion” to use Barack Obama’s famous analysis. (cf. Kinsley gaffe) Here’s James Baldwin, describing the Nation of Islam:

“I’ve come,” said Elijah, “to give you something which can never be taken away from you.” How solemn the table became then, and how great a light rose in the dark faces! This is the message that has spread through streets and tenements and prisons, through the narcotics wards, and past the filth and sadism of mental hospitals to a people from whom everything has been taken away, including, most crucially, their sense of their own worth. People cannot live without this sense; they will do anything whatever to regain it. This is why the most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose. You do not need ten such men—one will do. And Elijah, I should imagine, has had nothing to lose since the day he saw his father’s blood rush out—rush down, and splash, so the legend has it, down through the leaves of a tree, on him. But neither did the other men around the table have anything to lose. –James Baldwin, “Down At The CrossLetter from a Region in my Mind

Baldwin was no fan of Elijah Muhammed’s movement, but he tries to understand it and he seems to sympathize. And what he calls out in these lines is an overriding sense of loss–one that can justify any effort or sacrifice to overcome. That loss of worth, which Baldwin wants to depict as something much deeper than “self-esteem,” is tied not to airy questions of recognition but to material harms and embodied injuries: frisks and kicks by “legitimate” authority that go unanswered, murdered fathers that go unmourned by white society.

Baldwin even interprets the turn to Islam as a turn away from Christianity’s whiteness–from the forgiveness that it seems constantly to demand from white supremacy’s victims.

Today I know more Black Muslims than Arab ones, but mostly they’re imprisoned. And that, too, is a form of superfluousness: of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the US, 40% are Black, even though Blacks make up only 13% of the population.

PPI 2016 race

It’s hard not to see imprisonment of African-Americans as primarily a reaction to their enforced superfluousness. Labor market prejudices create a circumstance where unemployment rates for African-Americans are roughly double the rates for whites, at every education level. My students believe (and I agree) that the War on Drugs is largely a war on Black participation in the black labor market. (Recall the Ice Cream truck war of the summer which helps explain how police and the courts can make black markets less or more violent.) It’s an attempt to foreclose available forums for Black entrepreneurship. It’s notable that as marijuana legalization proceeds state-by-state it begins in white places, and the new profits and businesses are primarily white-owned.

To be rendered superfluous is a particularly odd phenomenon, and at least in the formulation I’ve lately been thinking about, it seems uniquely tied to relative deprivations of status and respect. I want to believe that respect and recognition matter less than life or health. We all have things we could lose, and honor is the least of these.

But that’s simply not how people act. Flourishing matters to most people more than survival, and flourishing requires a community of esteem. It requires reputation and character assessments, it requires that the agents of the state give you equal protection and don’t target you as a unique threat.

Some parts of Black America responded to superfluousness by clinging to god and guns, but for the most part African-Americans responded by becoming the center of cultural attention. There’s little argument that Black culture simply is American culture at this point, as almost all of our distinctively American institutions and cultural traditions are shot-through with Blackness even if it is unacknowledged. Baldwin charged that even myths of Black laziness or violence serve an important function in White America: they are our “fixed star” and moving out of their place of subordination would shake our “heaven and earth… to their foundations.”

Yet whites don’t seem to be willing to create their own economies of esteem in this way. Something–perhaps supremacy itself–has rendered them too lazy, too dependent on long-lost tradition and long-gone cultural victories. Consider Katherine Cramer’s formulation: rural Wisconsinites resent that the urban centers have deprived them of “power, money, and respect.” But they’re simply wrong: they’ve seen no real deprivations of power or money compared to Black Americans. It’s certainly true that they receive less respect than they used to get, less deference and less cultural attention. But this is a downfall from absolute supremacy and literal enslavement–enforced by rule of law. We have a long way to go before we aren’t still reaping what WEB Du Bois called “psychic wages” of white supremacy. (I prefer to call them psychic dividends, since it’s important that they are not a reward for work, but rather like a racial trust fund.)

How much should that matter? In my heart, I want to believe that people with a surplus of money, power, and respect should share. And I want to believe that it’s not a finite resource, that more souls can and will produce more of each if they’re not forced into superflousness. I think of Malcolm X, whose industriousness and self-invention could not be halted or stultified by racism or even Elijah Muhammed’s theocratic nonsense, only assassinated. But that’s where my analysis is probably wrong: when people have the money and power, they’re well-placed to demand the respect or punish its absence.

For Education, Against Credentialism

Today I’ll be addressing a group of imprisoned students, university administrators, and prison officials to inaugurate the University of Baltimore’s partnership with the US Department of Education and Jessup Correctional Institution to offer Bachelor’s Degrees. We have a few tasks today, including inspiring the students and encouraging the officials that their support for the program is not a betrayal of their other constituents. Here’s what I plan to say:

It’s well-known that receiving a college degree improves life outcomes. The standard claim is that getting a Bachelor’s Degree is worth an extra million dollars in income over a person’s lifetime, but even this is hard to predict as the returns to education are increasing. In 1965, a person with a college degree only made $7,500 more per year than a person without one. This is called the college wage premium: in 2013, that college wage premium had increased to $17,500. Since it’s increasing, it’s likely that a college degree today will be worth even more than a million dollars over a lifetime.

What’s more, college graduates are healthier, have lower unemployment rates and shorter periods of unemployment. They are more likely to have happy marriages and less likely to be divorced; they are less likely to be incarcerated, and even live longer.

Thus it seems like a pretty good investment. But there is very little clear connection between studying Civil War history or the anthropology of upland Southeast Asia and doing the sorts of jobs that college graduates end up doing. What’s more, there’s a phenomenon called the “sheepskin effect” which shows that most of the college wage premium comes from completing school, rather than along the way. Half or even 90% of a college degree does very little to increase your income, while finishing that last course can make a big difference.

College, then, seems to serve more as a signal of ability and conscientiousness than as training in necessary skills. Employers are paying for smart and hardworking staff, and a college degree is a reliable signal of those qualities. And indeed in college campuses throughout the country we see evidence that this is true: no one thinks that a cheater or a plagiarist is “only cheating himself,” they worry that he has an unfair advantage. The grade matters more than the work, it seems, which is also why students seek out “easy As” and rejoice when class is canceled. And many students readily engage in “cramming” for exams knowing that they will not retain the material in the long-term. (I owe these examples to Bryan Caplan, though they now seem almost too obvious to attribute.)

Calling it “signaling” is mostly an economic exercise, but educational researchers can see it at work in different ways, all of which indicate that there is not enough emphasis on learning. Educational sociologists call it the “disengagement compact,” a bargain struck between faculty and students in which both agree: “I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.” Teachers agree to be entertaining and undemanding, and in exchange students agree to pay their tuition without complaint and give the faculty good teaching evaluations. Both thus have more time for other endeavors.

I believe that imprisoned students do not have the luxury of the disengagement compact. If we accept the signaling theory then a period of incarceration is a severe signal to potential employers: it is a signal that you are more likely than not to go back to prison. At best, a degree serves to distinguish some formerly incarcerated returning citizens from the rest, to deepen the prejudice against some returning citizens in favor of others.

Thankfully, it turns out that people do sometimes learn useful skills in college. Education can be transformative. A rigorous liberal arts education that focuses on reading difficult texts, solving complicated problems, and writing and speaking clearly about matters of little direct concern can help teach the skills that employers want more than any other:

  • critical thinking
  • analytic reasoning
  • problem solving
  • clear written and oral communication

And research on college learning outcomes suggests that a liberal arts education can teach these skills so long as the classes require a lot of reading (forty pages a week), a lot of writing (twenty pages a semester), and the professor has high expectations of the students. Which is encouraging, because it means that we can break out of the merely competitive cycle.

I have a theory as to why this works, that comes from the educational advocate Earl Shorris. His Clemente course in the humanities inspired Bard College’s Prison Initiative, which inspired the US Department of Education, who took a chance on us here. In his book Riches for the Poor, Shorris argues that one major factor in poverty is the stultifying character of one’s problems and environment. Shorris offers the analogy of Native American hunting practices, where hunters would encircle their prey and then move in, creating anxiety and fear that aids the hunter in capturing stunned prey. Poverty and prison both offer similar “surrounds of force” whereby individuals are beset by so many forces (“hunger, isolation, illness, landlords, police, abuse, neighbors, drugs, criminals, and racism”) that they do not know where to turn.

An education in the liberal arts gives us the crucial pause we need to avoid confusion and find an escape route. The “pause” is a performative skill, like learning to fix a car or perform a surgery. Anyone could do it at any time, but learning to pause when we’re stressed is actually extremely difficult. We need to learn to reflect. And it isn’t just enough for a professor to tell you: “reflect!” Just as you can’t just tell an illiterate person, “read!” or a clumsy person who has never learned, “ride that bike! A highly rigorous and engaged liberal arts degree offers its students an opportunity to train in important meta-cognitive habits. Education is not something the teacher does to the student, it’s something the student does to himself, with the professor’s guidance.

To sum up:

Education may just be about signaling. If so, let’s signal loud and clear how amazing you guys are! But there’s a good deal of evidence that education can be transformative, even if your professors can’t transform you, exactly. You have to transform yourself with their help.

We will set out the guidelines. You will meet our (VERY HIGH) expectations. If the educational sociologists are right, this will give you an opportunity to develop the habits and skills that employers want and need. And if Shorris is right, maybe you’ll develop inner peace along the way. If you see a professor giving you too much slack, ask: does she believe in the transformative value of education? Or is he just here to collect a paycheck and hand out sheepskins?

Demand transformation.

Civic Death and the Afterlife of Imprisonment

It’s primary season, and once again I am reminded at just how little the rest of the country cares about the disenfranchisement of the District of Columbia. I usually salve my irritation with the knowledge that individual votes are unlikely to sway an election, so I am largely unharmed personally. The problem, of course, is that the disenfranchisement of a large group of people who share some interests does seem likely to have serious policy effects, as those interests are systematically ignored. (Perhaps a more powerful argument defending the loss of DC’s voting rights in federal matters is that it might force us to attend to local politics where decisions are both consequential and close enough to our lives to be noticed. So far, though, I am unimpressed.)

In any case, my neighbors and I are not alone. Vann Newkirk has a piece in the Atlantic challenging felon and prisoner disenfranchisement:

The origins of disenfranchisement as a vehicle of American punishment are likely traceable to some form of the classical notion of a “civil death.” For the Greeks, the punishment of civil death was akin to capital punishment—a complete extinguishing of the civil rights that Greeks believed constituted personhood, including suffrage, landownership, and the right to file lawsuits. English common law borrowed the Greek concept, and civil death was long viewed as a suitable punishment for felony offenses.

But civil death as a formal punishment in the American colonies differed from the English system on which it was based, and from the punishments that would later evolve. Civil death was initially only adopted in America for a very small number of felonies, the most common of which were violations directly connected to voting—for example, fraud or bribery. This paralleled both an expansion of crimes considered felonies and a decoupling of felony punishment from capital punishment. The use of long-term imprisonment, instead of corporal or capital punishment, only came about in fits and starts.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In Maryland, former felons are regaining their voting rights this year, and that affects some of the graduates of the JCI Prison Scholars Program! It’s pretty great.

For too long, we have begun to imagine that violators of the social contract are somehow unable to participate in its revision. In a world without ungoverned spaces, it’s no longer possible to exile our trangressors into the wastes. But what we do instead is significantly more cruel: exiled to social and civil death, prisoners are meant to continue to live in our midst while occupying as little of our time and energy as possible. They’re invisible men whose future is supposed to hold no future except to be ignored.

Yet the fantasies of social death are pernicious precisely because they imagine no return. The reality is that most of these men must someday rejoin the communities from which they have been exiled. People come back. What’s more, they’re never really that far away.

Their lives and ours are still bound together: at the very least we still pay to keep our fellow citizens incarcerated, we still send some of our fellow citizens inside to guard and “correct” them. But it’s also worth remembering that the prison’s walls are remarkably permeable. Guards and visiting family stream in and out. Gang members inside help their outside colleagues agree to cessation of hostilities.

If we were still able to punish our criminals with exile or death, it would be much easier. Instead ghosts still haunt us long after their social death. Fathers and mothers still parent their daughters and sons from within the prison’s walls. Husbands have long arguments and tender reconciliations with their wives as phone calls and letters go back and forth at great expense. And in most cases, the men and women who go off to prison must eventually shamble back from the social death we’ve wished upon them.

I still don’t know if there’s room for prisons in a just society. Our vengeful impulses seem to require some sort of satisfaction, and imprisonment might just be the fairest one remaining. But I do feel confident that those prisons cannot be premised on social death any longer.

“Trump’s slogans not enough to win”

Interview with Javad Heiran-Nia in Tehran Times, November 1, 2015, 1 & 11.

Front page of the Tehran Times, November 1, 2015. I have again had the great opportunity to give an interview for reporter Javad Hieran-Nia of The Tehran Times, Iran’s major English-language newspaper. I feel honored to have my interview again land the first page of the paper. The image on right is of the front page, but is also a link to a printable Adobe PDF version of the piece, which I edited onto one page. You can alternatively click here or on the title of the piece below for the same linked file.

The piece is titled “Trump’s popular slogans will not be
enough to win him the primary election: Weber,” The Tehran Times, November 1, 2015, pages 1 & 11.

The interview is available on paper’s site here.

Social Media, Public Shaming, and the Prospects for Prison Reform

I wonder if the Cecil story captures why prison reform (let alone abolition) is so difficult. Even among people who think that our prisons are overly punitive, there’s a deep reserve of resentment available to project at anyone who can be identified as having committed a malicious act. So even as we tell ourselves in general that we ought to be merciful, in practice and in particular instances we can always find a justification to be retributive.

One possibility is that we ought to recognize rage and revenge as illicit temptations. But there’s been a lot of work that demonstrates that there’s just as much danger in being overly detached, that even-handedness and “rationality” can serve as illicit temptations as well. So I think the balance is still tilted in favor of punitive measures.

We’re all too well aware of the racism of the system, of the economics of it; even knowing about these things won’t overcome our hair-trigger reactive attitudes. We like to see people brought low, especially when we can tell a story about how they see themselves as better than they are. But for every rich dentist we run out of business, the evidence suggests we are going to see a a lot of teenagers who think they’re above the law.

I know we can’t live without rage and shame. But I still hate this part of us; the cowardly bullying, especially from afar. Hannah Arendt claims that we make a mistake when we focus on our own sins and shortcomings when we view the wrong-doer. She defends pride– at least pride in the capacity to judge–on the grounds that only a proper judgment of the wrong-doing can make the restoration of the victim, perpetrator, and the relationship between them possible. But I’m just not satisfied with that, today: I just don’t see much ground for proper judgment from the spectators. Arendt may have thought we are better than we are.

When I think about the social psychology of rage and public shaming in the era of social networks I feel either pessimistic or worse–I hope that we’ll find ways to mobilize it well, fairly, and in the name of justice. I’m like a gun owner pretending that I’ve bought the weapon for self-defense despite ample evidence it’s more likely to kill me or those I love than protect us. It seems undeniable that our arsenal–our institutional and collective capacity for “two minutes hate“–is just getting stronger.

Everyone always learns the wrong lesson from the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Shock Study: we always think it means that other people are horrible. We ignore the possibility that we might be horrible, too, given the right circumstances.