Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Transforming Argumentative Dialogue through Prison Service-Learning Projects

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Transforming Argumentative Dialogue through Prison Service-Learning Projects

Article excerpt

On February 16, 2014, offering a bold yet data driven plan, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed to provide public financing for basic college-education programs in state prisons by introducing college classes in 10 prisons at a cost of $5,000 per inmate for the opportunity to earn a college degree ("Governor Cuomo launches initiative," 2014; Kaplan, 2014). Cuomo's plan seemed like a rational investment of taxpayer dollars. In a study recently published by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, it was found that incarcerated men and women "who participated in correctional education programs have a 43 percent lower chance of recidivating than those who do not" (Davis et al., 2013, p. xv); additionally, the study reported that "the odds of obtaining employment post-release among inmates who participated in correctional education (either academic or vocational/CTE programs), were 13 percent higher than the odds for those who did not" (Davis, et al., 2013, p. xvi). According to the Department of Justice, each dollar spent on enhancing education programs within prisons decreases incarceration costs by approximately five dollars during the first three years after an individual is released, a crucial period when those leaving prison are most likely to return (Bidwell, 2013).

Unfortunately, Governor Cuomo cancelled his innovative plan as a result of opposition from lawmakers in Albany. Arguments raised by those against the plan centered on the idea that taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill for "Attica University" claiming that tuition costs are rising for others. In a New York Times column (Kaplan, 2014) it was noted that members of the New York State Assembly proposed a "Kids Before Cons Act" to prevent federal dollars from being diverted to Governor Cuomo's plan. The fact that the proposed "Kids Before Cons Act" did not directly address the evidence demonstrating that educational programs are in the taxpayers' interest was of little concern to the New York assembly. Arguments that challenge educational programs such as this often fail to take into account data that support the value of prison educational programming in reducing the likelihood that the incarcerated will reoffend and be reintroduced into the prison community. Rather, oppositional arguments are often driven by a need to be tough on those who commit crimes; leniency toward people who commit crimes often derails political campaigns.

The problem is not limited to New York. States are spending less on prison educational programs now than in 1982, despite the fact that state expenditures on corrections overall have consistently increased during this time. Across states, spending on educational programming in correctional facilities has dropped from a high of 33 percent of total state expenditures in 1982 to a low of 29 percent of total state expenditures in 2010 (Bidwell, 2013). Within the state of Michigan, the funding of correctional facilities accounts for a greater share of the general budget than any other state. While the correctional facility budget has increased, the amount of money devoted to educational programming has not kept pace (Roelofs, 2014).

Inmates often leave prison without the critical skills needed to "start over" in a society where they have been incarcerated for considerable lengths of time. If ex-offenders leave prison without a way to earn a living upon their return home, they are less likely to have a successful transition back into society (Mathis, 2014). Research has found that individuals who are incarcerated are more likely to find employment if they have participated in education programs in prison (Skorton & Altschuler, 2013).

To cultivate a more informed citizenry and a public more receptive to arguments that reimagine current public policy, we take up the promise of service-learning as a pedagogy that has the potential to transform argumentative discourse and create space for both compassion and rationality in a politically contested learning environment. …

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