Prison Mathematics Project- Essay Project: The Value of Higher Education Within Prisons by Rory Andes


Rory Andes, 10 years

In a prison, the hunger for education is without limits. The science and statics of evidence-based programming like education is irrefutable. Prison and public policy both reference its importance. However, access to it has to be just as creative as the minds who care to teach to this demographic.

Imagine the scene, four inmates huddled together at a steel table in the middle of a prison day room, papers scattered around with notes of all varieties, logging information. Two of the inmates have a stripped laptop, issued from the college supporting the prison. The laptops are small, clear and devoid of any peripheral access that would be recognizable to anyone who’s familiar with technology. These two have been given an opportunity that not everyone gets – they get to learn from an educator once a week. The classes are small and as much as people want in, they must wait, up to years sometimes, to have that interaction with an educator. It’s clawed after and understood to be one of the biggest social demarcations between success in and after prison, or a perceived struggle through hopeless life outcomes.

The other two inmates are in line and waiting, one with a Life Without Parole sentence and the other, a lengthy infraction history from a decade ago that complicates his opportunities, even though he matured. Yet they diligently work to understand a discarded book found in a pile on a table, or rewrite used handouts from college attendees who have complete a course. They sit tightly with the ones in an education program in hopes of receiving a taste of that hope for a better future, an opportunity, or a validation of redemption. Just to have knowledge that doesn’t involve prison politics and the convict code, but something more profound that resembles the idea of success. An education for the incarcerated is a chance to prove what’s ever eluseive for many – they are more than a troubled past and the sum of their crimes.

All four are thirsty for knowledge, but much like a drought on the African Savannah, it’s not easy to come by and absolutely discouraging without support to foster progress. One thing all four do have access to is mail. The postal service can be the lifeline to help answer questions, empower thought, and challenge previous notions. An educator with a pen, an inmate’s address, and a willingness to teach in vastly unconventional ways, can single handedly change a life and provide a safer community in the long run. All inmates who find a good book to read or worksheet of problems to solve could use encouragement from someone in the free world to answer the vital questions or provide a purpose, direction and motivation in subjects of interest. It’s in these relationships between teacher and student, or mentor and disciple, that allow someone in prison to cross that line from criminal to rehabilitated.

While not all inmates have clear access to education, all students, regardless of the level of understanding, deserve a teacher who enables them with how to think about the world through an academic lens. The ability to be of value to someone who cares about their education may have been missed during the formidable years of brain development. But sometimes hitting bottom is exactly what it takes to know that the sky is the limit. Educators of any fashion can help a student build the wings he or she needs to learn to fly. It takes dedication of both parties to foster the results to criminal desistance through education.

I’ve witnessed a man with extraordinary math anxiety, the kind that gave him nosebleeds, recover from his anxiety with dedicated mentorship. I’ve seen students in prison, the kind without a classroom, discover a new language through a book, figuring the words together. Whether there is access to a classroom or not, the quest for higher learning or a new skill found in academia and beyond is pervasive among those that are trying to change their lives. Sometimes it just takes very small things to shape someone into a sponge of knowledge, or more importantly, a neighbor you would embrace.

Where there are incarcerated students, hungry for knowledge, there is a different vibe and sense of responsibility. Prison culture cannot stand in the face of the educated. Mainstream perceptions of prison are views of the poor and uneducated. Violence, criminal thinking, and a need to belong to the worst of groups won’t hold up to someone empowered through education. Education is a place of belonging, of healing, and of rehabilitation. While education in prison is often unconventional, the importance of it will change the worst of errants and create citizens in its wake. I know, because I am a student with a bright future. Support prison education and safer communities.


Rory Andes for PMP