Friday, June 15, 2007

The Prison and the College

Today's New York Times brings a welcome graduation story of Mikki Hidalgo, a formerly incarcerated woman who has completed the transition back from prison to a successful and effective life in the community by completing a bachelors degree (read Dalton Walker's reporting)

The program which helped Mikki and scores of other formerly incarcerated women, College and Community Fellowship, is directed by Rev. Vivian Nixon, an inspiring mentor and leader in the growing movement to stem mass incarceration in America. Prison to college programs like College and Community Fellowship should be seen together with a growing group of programs around the country bringing college students into prisons to study with prisoners, including programs linking UC Berkeley and San Quentin, and at Bard College.

This is not the first time that prisons and higher education have developed channels both ways, but it comes after a long period of mass incarceration in which earlier educational initiatives have been delegitimized and dismantled. It also comes at a time when prisons and colleges are directly competing for public financing.

Twenty years ago, as mass imprisonment in California was hardening and escalating, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of a graduate student activist compelled by the formalities of a brief exchange before an official meeting, to make small talk with UC President David Pierpont Gardner. After he explained why UC's difficult budgetary negotiations with the legislature made any improvement in graduate student funding impossible at the moment, I quipped that he should seek a merger with the California Department of Corrections thereby solving his budgetary, diversity, and student protesting problems all at once. He didn't crack a smile.

Still, there is something very promising about this current circulation between prison and college. College students have been and can be articulate and influential participants in the national discussion about mass imprisonment. Prisoners and the formerly incarcerated are in a unique position to explain and analyze the nature of the carceral power that has been unleashed on America, and whose influence is shaping all our communities.

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