Wednesday, June 5, 2013

GUEST BLOGGER Kenneth L. Parker

GUEST BLOGGER: Kenneth L. Parker is an Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Saint Louis University who has worked on developments to establish a college-in-prison program at the University. I had the privilege of meeting and gaining Kenneth's support for our efforts during the National Higher Education in Prisons Conference this spring. I am grateful for his participation in this guest blogger series where he highlights profound memories and experiences about his time teaching within prison.

“What I Learned about Learning in Prison”
Kenneth L. Parker
Associate Professor of Historical Theology
Saint Louis University
Saint Louis, MO


The title is misleading … I have never served time in prison. But last semester I had the
privilege of teaching in one. I say “privilege” because the experience became without
question the best classroom experience of my twenty years as a teacher. Don’t get me
wrong—teaching Ph.D. candidates, theology majors, and undergraduates in our honors
program has been stimulating and engaging—but never before have I taught the
intellectually-starved. It is hard to write about this because the experience evoked so
much pleasure. Would I feel the same way if I had spent the past semester feeding the
physically emaciated?
Yet that is the intellectual equivalent of what I did. Teachers crave, even long for the
experience of students who walk into their classrooms with eager smiles and open minds.
Imagine assigning texts that baffle the brightest undergraduates on the main campus and
find a room filled with students who have read the text three and four times, outlined the
argument and struggled until they had conquered the riddle of words and syntax. Try to
picture fifteen students sitting for almost three hours engaging in intense discussion and
debate on topics that you have posed and who are eager for your instructional guidance.
Conjure up the image of a student returning his paper to you … because he wants more
correction and guidance as a writer. Consider what it feels like to have a group of
students in the final assessment tell you that the experience in your classroom has given
them hope—a sense that life has purpose. What I have described is just a pale reflection
of my experience of teaching in prison. What I learned in prison is that the privilege to
learn, when withdrawn, creates desperation and despair, a loss of hope that is hard to
revive and a smoldering anger that is difficult to extinguish.
America’s prisons were not always an intellectual wasteland. Between the mid-1970s and
the mid-1990s a network of over 350 college-in-prison programs existed in forty-five
states. Numerous studies confirmed that college education in prison dramatically reduced
recidivism rates. The more undergraduate education received while in prison, the less
likely an inmate would re-offend once released. When recidivism rates nationwide
averaged around 65%, college-in-prison programs produced results in the 15% to 0%
Yet in 1994 a Republican senator from North Carolina and a Democratic representative
from Missouri helped champion a campaign to bar inmates from access to Pell grants.
They argued that if hard-working, law-abiding citizens struggled to educate their
children, why should the government subsidize criminals in pursuit of college degrees?
Jesse Helms and Dick Gephardt succeeded. Their legislation effectively shut down
undergraduate education in American prisons. In many states even vocational training
and GED programs were treated as luxuries that prisoners did not deserve.
The results for the United States have been devastating. In an atmosphere that shifted
from rehabilitation to retribution, the last fourteen years has seen our prison population
explode. Although we are 5% of the earth’s population, we house and feed 25% of the
world’s inmates. One in every one hundred adult Americans is behind bars. The
construction and operation of prisons has become such a burden that states have slashed
funding of state-run universities and colleges. This has resulted in higher tuition at these
institutions and reduced access to higher education for the country’s working poor—
further exacerbating the cycles of behavior and despair that result in criminal behavior
and more prisoners.
When the Saint Louis University Prison Initiative, funded in part by the Incarnate Word
Foundation, solicited applications from the prison population we serve, over 300 men
applied for fifteen places. The applications were compelling and often heartrending. Most
of the men came from impoverished backgrounds, with little parental guidance (often
because one or both parents were in prison), and found affirmation and nurturing for a
criminal life on the street. In prison they now have time to think and reconsider their
priorities in life. They long for guidance. Yet the recurring theme in applications was that
programs did not exist to address this constructive desire. Many described the SLU
Prison Initiative as their first opportunity to pursue post-secondary education after
years—sometimes decades—of incarceration. In the end, selection of students focused on
those who were using what they had to make a difference inside. The students in our
program are GED tutors, facilitators in restorative justice groups, and several are
autodidacts—one reads his New Testament in Greek. Another has become an award
winning script writer. There are self-taught musicians and artists. One student’s academic
skills are so advanced that he could easily pursue graduate studies. In prison I learned
there is great talent and extraordinary ability behind prison walls—human potential that
we as a nation are wasting because we chose not to redirect and reshape it toward
productive and positive purposes.
College education offers a key. I have long known that students will live up to my
expectations. If I create demanding goals in a course, those who persevere tend to excel
and achieve beyond their ordinary patterns in other settings. This is what I did in the
prison course. Assignments that are selections from a book on the main campus became
book assignments for my prison students. I marked their essays severely, but added notes
of encouragement at signs of progress. While this practice often is met with grumbling
and complaints on the main campus, prison students rose to the occasion and spoke in
triumphant terms about their struggles to understand a text and how they conquered it.
They discussed the pain of writing four and five drafts of essays assigned until they
achieved the desired result. The passion and commitment astounded me.
What I learned in prison is that there are men and women aching for the opportunity to be
pushed to their limit and receive praise for achieving hard won goals. These are human
beings—like us—who crave respect and restoration of their dignity. I learned that despite
their crimes, often heinous, there is a core of humanity that responds when respect is
given and judgment is suspended. When I consider that 95% of the women and men in
prison will one day be back on the streets, it is only prudent to ensure that they will leave
with their dignity and sense of self-worth intact. College education on the inside is the
only proven way to achieve that goal.
I learned in prison that the best students and most fervent learners are to be found behind
bars. If you would like to experience the guilty pleasure of teaching the intellectuallystarved,
develop a college-in-prison program in your area. You may be surprised, as I
was, that the help to do this is waiting for your call. While others may praise your
altruism and commitment to serve a despised population, your greatest challenge may be
living with the guilt of knowing that you are enjoying the best teaching experience of
your life!

Please visit Kenneth's Profile Page:
SLU College-in-Prison Program:

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