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June 13, 2017

Notable prisoner makes notable case for prison education and programming ... only for some

I have been following the work an writings of Jeremiah Bourgeois, a juvenile offender sentenced to LWOP (but now eligible for parole) in Washington State, since he authored this thoughtful and personal essay for the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law a few years ago. His latest column for The Crime Report, headlined "Educate a Prisoner, Save a Life," begins by stressing that the reason for [his personal] change is not hard to find: the higher education courses [he has] been taking during my incarceration." As he goes on to put it: "It is amazing what an education can do. It can transform the violent and ignorant into the peaceful and intelligent."

But, intriguingly, while using his own story to make the case for "making higher education available in correctional facilities," his column also suggests that reform advocates and public officials need to urge "correctional systems [to] finally abandon[] efforts to change those who — quite simply — are content to continue the behavior which led them to prison in the first place." Here is part of his explanation for what he suggests should be a kind of modern prison programming triage:

I have never been able to wrap my mind around why correctional officials believe they can force change on those who are committed to wrongdoing. Nevertheless, they keep trying. One of the purposes of punishment in Washington State is to “offer the offender an opportunity to improve himself or herself.”  In practice, the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) has transformed this legislative decree into a Don Corleone-esque offer that prisoners cannot easily refuse.

DOC uses a carrot and stick approach. Prisoners can earn a small reduction in their sentence for every month that they follow the dictates of the Facility Risk Management Team (FRMT), which is a group comprised of the prisoner’s counselor and other unit staff, and outlines the programs the prisoner must complete in order to receive this “earned time.” This is the carrot.  The stick involves disciplinary sanctions for refusing to abide by the expectations established by the FRMT. Enough of these, and the prisoner will be transferred to ever more secure facilities until, in the end, he is confined in long-term administrative segregation.

All of this is done in an effort to mitigate the risk that prisoners will commit crimes upon being freed.  The belief is that requiring prisoners to work or go to school or undergo treatment interventions will reduce their likelihood of re-offending. On its face, such policies are rational.  Nobody wants prisoners to rejoin society in the same sorry state they were in when removed from it.

But the fact remains that resources are often devoted toward recalcitrant prisoners whose words and deeds manifest their commitment to the criminal subculture.  Having watched the same people cycle through prison over and over again, it’s clear to me that this subset of individuals are a bad investment — with diminishing returns.  Moreover, history has demonstrated that even the rack-and-screw is no match against the conviction of true believers, and many prisoners are just stubbornly unwilling to repent for a life of crime.

You can spot them throughout the penitentiary, begrudging the policies that compel them to work or go to school or to participate in treatment programs meant to change them. He is the slacker in the dish tank talking about how much “paper” he used to make on the streets.  He is the 20-something in the Adult Basic Education classroom spending the school-day freestyle rapping and sleeping.  He is the man in chemical dependency treatment tweaking on methamphetamines....

The time has come for rehabilitative efforts to be devoted toward prisoners who have the most likelihood of being rehabilitated.  Once upon a time, correctional systems had the luxury of trying to change such men. But those days are over. There is no money left to continue such social experiments.

Arrogance and paternalism is a combination that is antithetical to fiscal responsibility and sound correctional policies.  The time has come for rehabilitative efforts to be devoted toward prisoners who have the most likelihood of being rehabilitated, rather than those who are most likely to re-offend.  Moreover, such programs should be made available to those who seek it rather than mandating prisoners to participate in them.

Take the University Beyond Bars (UBB) for example.  Every participant in the UBB is there because they want to be, for this higher education program at MCC is entirely voluntary. Even when college credit cannot be offered due to lack of funding, prisoners readily sign up simply for self-enrichment.  As a member of the Prisoner Advisory Committee for the UBB, I saw such men come to recognize their capacity to complete college studies; and, more importantly, conceive of living lives removed from criminality.

These are the prisoners worth saving.  It may seem cruel, but in an emergency, triage is about not wasting one’s time and efforts on the hopeless.  Correctional systems should adopt the same sense of mission and purpose.

The uniquely informed perspective behind this commentary makes me eager to endorse its notable message, and yet I wonder and worry about the ability of correction officials and other to fairly and effectively figure out which prisoners are "worth saving" and which are "hopeless."  Like so many sound and sensible suggestions in the arena of sentencing and corrections, the devil would seem to be in the details here if and when corrections officials only made prison education and programming available to those who appeared worthy of these resources.

June 13, 2017 at 10:55 AM | Permalink


One fairly simple way to handle it is to remove the stick and rely only on a voluntary 'carrot.' If every participant is there of their own volition, rather than to escape punishment, that would be a large improvement.

Posted by: Erik | Jun 13, 2017 11:27:38 AM

Even in prison people find ways to feel morally superior to others. Something, something...first stone...sometime something. His disgusting moral preening aside I want to add this...

He writes, "All of this is done in an effort to mitigate the risk that prisoners will commit crimes upon being freed."

That is the formal rationale but I suspect that prison officials don't give a rats ass about the formal rationale, they only care about its concrete impacts on the daily life of the prison. if the education and training programs make the prisoner more docile while in prison that is what they care about not what goes on after the term is served.

Posted by: Daniel | Jun 13, 2017 11:52:23 AM

Meanwhile, Prof. B's fantasy Obama Supreme Court nominee introduces things here:


As to "worth saving," it is always uncomfortable when humans make choices like that, but at some point, that simply is what happens. Again, doesn't make it ideal.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 13, 2017 12:01:55 PM

Erik's right -- it isn't particularly difficult to determine which inmates are "worth saving." Do the carrot/stick thing for a couple of introductory courses; after that, only provide services for those who volunteer for them. No carrots, no sticks. Just let a parole board (or future probation officer) take educational *achievement* in prison (as opposed to just sitting in classes) into account. If prisoners don't want to take the classes, that's fine, they can just watch television.

Posted by: Levin | Jun 13, 2017 6:37:58 PM

Any improvement has to be inside the structure of prison. Every prisoner should have his own tablet, and open wifi. These are cheap, and likely super cheap if purchased in bulk. Here is one ruggedized for children, with a no questions 2 year warranty.


First, all should be video addicts. Video addiction coincides with world wide obesity epidemic, and consumes massive time. Obese, busy, consumed people commit fewer crimes. For those who choose to take a break from video games, there are millions of online courses, and lectures, some at the highest level of sophistication for their subject. For example, MIT puts its science lectures on line. Here is a set of 25 lectures on Quantum Mechanics at MIT.


Expensive instructors are not needed. If the prison wants to award diplomas, it may have the very best instructors provide courses online, test people on line, and award online certificates in a subject.

The lash for those using this privilege to commit a crime, for example, online scams, downloading child porn, or bopping a peer on the head with one. Adult porn should be encouraged. Seriously, stop kidding around, the lash. Cheap and repeatable all day, until the prisoner learns.

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 14, 2017 2:23:36 AM

This is not the carrot. This is not the stick, lawyer dumbass. This is the irresistible, uncontrollable addiction model.

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 14, 2017 2:26:46 AM

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