Crime has the dual effect of repelling you and drawing you in. Movies, books, television, and the internet are saturated with tales of crime. And true crime outrates fiction. There is something primal in walking up to the edge of the cliff and looking deeply into the darkest parts of the human psyche whilst taking comfort from knowing we can also step back from the precipice.
As an educator employed in the adult criminal justice system for over seven years, I must admit I never really held a political view on the prison system before working in gaols. Of course, I imagined prisons were far from ideal places, but I knew very little of their workings or who occupied the buildings. Was the criminal justice system effective? Do we have the balance right between punishment and rehabilitation? Is incarceration the best use of social and economic resources? Are gaols masking greater problems of society? On the first day of employment as a correctional education officer, those thoughts never even crossed my mind.
Essentially, all those questions can be whittled down to one: What is a prison for? If you were to ask the public, the answer you would mainly get is to take the bad people out of society, to keep the wolves from the door or something along those lines. To make society safer, the courts’ role is to balance making a sentence long enough to deter others from committing the same offence but not too long as to make the prisoner an even more dysfunctional person. But once you have removed them from society, what do you do next? And when you put all the bad eggs together in the one basket, what is going to be the end product? How many pro-social role models is a young inmate going to find in the prison yard?
I agree that there are some people you need to take out of society for our safety. There are some truly awful crimes. I also met some very scary individuals whom I would not like to be locked up in a cell with at night! However, most prisoners I encountered were not innately evil. The majority came from lower socio-economic backgrounds, were poorly educated and were recidivists – they keep coming back. An inadequate education is only one of the ‘big eight’ criminogenic risk factors that leads to reoffending. There are economic and social factors at play here but, as an educator, the low level of literacy of the incarcerated and how that impacts their lives was especially apparent.
Education is not regarded as the most significant risk factor for reoffending but there is an undeniable correlation between a lack of education and rates of incarceration. In the United States, where there are more than 2.4 million individuals currently incarcerated, 18 percent of the general population do not hold a high school diploma. This climbs to 68 percent for State prison inmates.
Equally, the Australian Institute of Criminology reported on the effectiveness of correctional education in improving post-release outcomes in 2016. It stated that ‘the more classes completed by prisoners the lower the rate of re-incarceration and the less likely they are to increase the seriousness of their offending’. In effect, the more classes the inmate successfully completes, the less likely they are to reoffend and to access welfare payments.
Research shows this is the case not only in Australia but right across the world. Studies suggest an improved education can increase patience, risk aversion and future financial earnings, but life on the inside is more nuanced than any study. Prisons are not educational institutions, and many other factors are at play that may have a greater bearing on successful rehabilitation.
I recall a prisoner in his mid-twenties who had decided he had had enough of a life of crime. He was studying a university course in gaol via distance. One day he did not show up to class. He was being held in segregation for assaulting another prisoner. He later told me that he was challenged in the wing by a newly arrived prisoner who was trying to establish his place in the dog-eat-dog world behind the padlocked gate.
He could not refuse the challenge lest he be targeted. As a punishment his access to education was under review. At the same time, he was being visited by members of his gang who reminded him of his loyalty to them while declaring they would be providing him with a new sports car on his release.
Crime fascinates us and the media glamourises it, but the reality of a life of crime for many is a life of recurring incarceration and wasted human potential. For some it is cool and a rite of passage, but it is also very degrading, perilous, and tedious. There’s a reason it’s called doing time.
Paul A. MacNamara
‘THE CRIMINAL CLASS – Memoir of a Prison Teacher’ (Big Sky Publishing)
Available in paperback in Big W and bookstores. Also as an e-book and an audio book – https://www.bigskypublishing.com.au/books/the-criminal-class/