colleges and penitentiaries

DSC02066I’m often struck by the similarities between penal institutions and colleges.  Kidding aside, we’re both publicly funded, with distinct streams of revenue and oversight from predominantly state and federal authorities.  And we’re both in the social engineering business, society’s way of reconciling its goals with those of individuals.

And, to whatever extent the corrections machinery is really about “correcting” – that is, rehab over retribution – we’re also colleagues in the work of human development.  We expect our charges to leave us in better shape than when they came in.

So here’s my hunch:  we should work together.

I would like college students, as part of becoming educated and productive members of civil society, to get first-hand experience interacting with people who broke the rules.  I don’t just mean in isolated programs like Temple University’s Inside-Out, or Project Rebound at San Francisco State.

I mean everyone.  If we train for teaching with practice on the unschooled, and for medicine by interacting with sick people, why not citizenship with criminals?

I think our law-abiding graduates would leave with a deeper sense of their own roles relative to the rest of us, and also be better able to cross cultural and experiential divides as a result.  And it would be cheaper than sending everyone abroad in the junior year.

In the other direction, there’s some evidence that the experience benefits the incarcerated, who report the dignifying, transformational impact of being treated as learners.  Inside Out, Project Rebound, and others claim lower-than-usual recidivism, although serious research is hard to come by.

Inside-OutSure, there’s a Pollyanna aspect to this that could get downright dangerous.  Sitting in a big circle as they do with Inside-Out prison courses, inmates alternating with students, might go badly mixing violent offenders with sorority pledges.  And some who live in the big house are just beyond redemption.

But I could see a time a century or two off, when our descendants look back at the state prisons of our era and marvel at our cruelty, the way we feel watching Les Mis, or Roots.  They’ll be amazed at how ready we were to discard each other, not knowing how hard it is to question institutions and cultural norms we inherited from an age when we were less connected.


In fact, as we harness neurobiology, behavioral science, and even big data to learn more about criminality, we may get so good at rehabilitation that breaking the law comes to be seen as a developmental stumble, something to be addressed like low reading scores.  At that point, our institutions of acculturation won’t simply appear the same; they will be.


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