The federal government is moving toward restoring Pell grants to help prisoners get an education. The grants were cut off in 1994, a time when politicians were jumping to avoid being seen as “soft on crime,” but the political pendulum now seems to be swinging in the other direction.
The debate over the value of correctional education has been going on for a long time. In a two-part paper, Thom Gehring and William R. Muth look at efforts for better education for prisoners between 1840 and 1940.
Gehring and Muth start the first half of their paper with Alexander Maconochie, who oversaw British penal colonies on islands off the Australian coast from 1837 to 1844. Maconochie curbed the use of flogging and chains, which had been common before, and pioneered a system that let well-behaved convicts earn increasing freedoms. Maconochie founded a library and a system of adult schools staffed by educated convicts, as well as Protestant and Catholic churches.
Maconochie’s experiment was cut short, however, after free Australian colonists took umbrage at his policies—in particular, a day of outdoor picnicking and entertainment for the prisoners held to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday.
A few years later, in the U.S., Zebulon Brockway learned of Maconochie’s ideas. At the time, it was common for whole prisons full of convicts to be held in constant solitary confinement—a system that drove many prisoners insane. Brockway began applying Maconochie’s reforms at the Detroit House of Correction in the 1860s, creating academic, vocational, and social education programs. Brockway was a well-connected leader in the U.S. prison management world, and he helped make correctional education an accepted, mainstream idea in the country.
Gehring and Muth take up the second part of their story with Thomas Mott Osborn, who became warden of Sing Sing Prison in New York in 1915. Osborn inherited a prison that still punished prisoners with flogging and kept them locked in their cells whenever they weren’t at work. Quickly, he made some radical changes, establishing a democratic system to allow the prisoners to govern themselves. There was also a system of inmate courts, which Osborn said functioned as “a sort of large class in Social Ethics.” In the first year of his wardenship, injuries due to violence dropped 60 percent, while prisoner morale rose dramatically.
Like Maconochie, Osborne ran into intense opposition from corrections managers who saw him as “going soft” on criminals, Gehring and Muth write. He was indicted on fake charges, and, despite being found innocent, he lost the support of prison managers. He had to curtail his experiment.
The final reformer that Gehring and Muth point to was Austin MacCormick, who wrote what Gehring and Muth call “the definitive volume on correctional education,” helping to define the field for the modern era. Yet, more than 80 years later, reformers seeking to expand education for prisoners continue to be dismissed as foolhardy and soft on crime.