Politicians Pull the Real ‘Con’ in ‘Kids Before Cons’ Act

Each semester, in my course on prisons and education I ask my undergraduate students to play a little game with me called “step into the circle.” We use the activity to reveal the social systems that have shaped who we are and how we see the world. In the circle we share the truths that connect us and reveal our differences: who has experienced violence, who has been arrested, who has a loved one in prison, and at some point I always ask the group to step into the circle if they will have student loan debt when they graduate college. About half of my young social justice-minded students step into the middle of the circle with a heavy sigh, shoulders slumping forward, as if they can already feel the weight of that promissory note come to terms on their backs.

My students are not alone. New Yorkers carry upwards of $66.5 billion in student loan debt to achieve their dream of a college degree. Many of those students are people of color from communities hardest hit by all the consequences of poverty. They know better than anyone that a college education is vital to finding a job and being able to sustain a family. Yet for many the financial burden is crushing, even if they are lucky enough to land a full time job, in those initial years out of college. Add to the mix that our country is in the midst of an economic crisis, with a stagnant job market, and student loan debt has become a hot button issue that ought to come with a “trigger warning” when introducing the topic into policy conversations.

So in February when three Republican Congressmen decided to introduce a bill called “Kids Before Cons” they had to have known that emotion would quickly supersede the research that demonstrates that access to education is a successful tool for reducing the rates at which people return to prison. In the long run, education programs could save us millions of dollars that could be reinvested right back into our education system. Yet, in the name of indebted students, Governor Cuomo’s plan to fund college credit bearing education programs in 10 New York State prisons was ditched within a month of his celebratory announcement.

Now we’re all left with nothing. No funding for education programs in prisons. Students forced to lend their names to a shameful fear-mongering campaign, are also left empty handed. Where is your interest rate reduction or increased tuition assistance, kids? Meanwhile, people with criminal records are saddled with something much worst then student loans, a lifetime negotiating the legally discriminatory barriers to re-entry. The only people to benefit from this egregious ploy is upstate Republicans who reap the spoils of the prison industry that keeps food on the table for many of their constituents. They can pat themselves on the back for an easy political win; a victory fueled by emotion, fear, and bad politics.

We’ve already wasted too many years letting our political leaders get away with posturing behind “tough on crime” policies that are politically expedient but morally deficient. We need to hold our representatives accountable for expanding access to education for everyone no matter where they live or who they are. That includes people serving time inside of New York’s prisons and high school students who worry that they cannot afford to attend college, because this is an issue that affects all of us.

So “step into the circle” if you think it is wrong that your taxpayer dollars will go to sustaining a prison system that sends people out in the world without any of the tools they need to succeed? If so, I suggest you call your congressperson and tell them: “Not in your name”, the burden of the student loan debt is enough. We do not want to carry the moral burden of a punishment system that is a revolving door for those that we refuse to educate.

– Piper Anderson

Faculty member, NYU Gallatin School


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Abolish the Box Rally – Sunday, May 18th, 2-4pm

Join the Incarceration to Education Coalition to learn more about ending barriers to education and discriminatory admissions practices for applicants impacted by the criminal punishment system. There will be a community discussion, poets and MCs, petition signing, and opportunities to get involved in our Coalition. 

“Education is the key to unlock the GOLDEN door of FREEDOM”


Abolish the Box Speak Out Flyer 2 Sides JPG Abolish the Box Speak Out Page 2 JPG

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Norwegian Case Study: Education As a Basic Human Right

Norwegian Case Study: Education as a Basic Human Right

By Mandy Tan

While we continue to limit education for incarcerated people in the United States, there is one thing that is very clear in the Norway: Education is a basic human right and it should be granted to all.

norwegian-prison-5_600x450_75e79ee1f7The Norwegian Education Act of 1998 requires that all citizens have a right and obligation to complete lower secondary school (the US equivalent of Grades 8, 9, 10th.) For those who have completed lower secondary school, they may continue to upper secondary education (the US equivalent of Grades 11th and 12th.) There are also procedures for inmates who want to attain higher education, which include a social service officer at each prison to help them receive grants for textbooks and, in some cases, even tuition. Understanding the different needs for incarcerated people, many Norwegian prisons also have “educational workplaces,” in which incarcerated people are apprentices who gain tangible skills that help facilitate successful reentry into society. For example, as shown in the picture above, Norwegian prisons may include kitchen laboratories so inmates can learn about nutrition and cooking.

Education is, after all, considered a major factor for an overall lower recidivism rate. This is apparent for the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and The Police’s report “Punishment that Works – Less Crime – A Safer Society”:

The objective…is a convict who has served his sentence…can read, write and do arithmetic; has a chance on the labor market; can relate to family, friends and the rest of society…and can live an independent life.

To provide incarcerate people, then, with the tools necessary to “increase the probability of inmates succeeding in living a life without crime,” the Norwegian prison education system follows an import model. This was first brought to Norway’s attention by criminologist Nils Christie’s presentation in 1969, in which he explained that the self-supply model dangerously isolates various groups of professionals from retaining and continuing their expertise in their disciplines. Instead, the import model allows external organizations in the community to provide library, medical, and other services to the prisons. This system strives to normalize prisons to replicate society and allows different organizations to participate in the re-integration of prisoners into society.

The Nordic Council of Ministers also created a group to develop the “Nordic Prison Education: A Lifelong Learning Perspective” report to further understand how to provide inmates the most effective education.  They investigated the problem holistically and divided it into the 10 categories including, education/training options, role of the teacher and methology, administrative co-operation, crime prevention, international recommendations, and right to education and training.

As the US continues to take steps to deny education to incarcerate people, such as when President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act to reject incarcerated people’s application for Pell Grant, Norway is strengthening their efforts to ensure that the basic right to education is granted to all people, especially those who need it most.


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NYU Mic Fiends Mix Tape Release Party


Mic Fiends Flyer

NYU Mic Fiends – Mix Tape Release Party

A Benefit for the Incarceration to Education Coalition

4/30/2014 – Doors 6:30 / Show 7:00pm

The Nuyorican Cafe – 236 E 3rd St.

$7 Presale – $10 Day Of

About Mic Fiends: A hip hop collective comprised of thirteen NYU students from across NYUs various schools who enrolled in a course called “Microphone Fiends: Hip Hop and Spoken Word.”

About The Incarceration to Education Coalition: A campaign dedicated to removing criminal history screenings from college admissions processes to create equal opportunity for formerly incarcerated individuals.

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Mo’ Money, Mo’ prisons (part 1)

What would you choose to spend 60,000 dollars a year on? For most students they would choose to pay their tuition and housing costs. For others they would choose to pay their mortgage, buy food or a new car. In New York State we spend this much money on every single one of the 54,000 people who are currently incarcerated, which adds up to about 3.2 Billion dollars a year. Personally, when I hear this figure, I wonder how could a prison be so expensive to run, and how did we get to this point?

To understand the way money, big business and prison have become connected, we have to start by understanding privatization. There are several ways to define privatization, the first being the process of transferring ownership of a business, enterprise, agency, public service, or public property from the public sector (a government) to the private sector and the second being the government outsourcing of services or functions to private firms (eg revenue collection, law enforcement and prison management). The second definition of privatization is what has led to the rise of private prisons in the United States.

There is a common belief amongst the supporters of privatization that the private maker can deliver goods or services more efficiently than government due to free market competition. In regards to prison this would mean that a private company would be able to run the prison more efficiently than the state or federal government because they have an incentive (the contract they are awarded from the government) to run the prison as efficiently as possible. Seems like a pretty good deal right? These companies run the prisons in a way that is cheaper for everyone involved, including the tax-payers and we all benefit.

Though at first it may seem that the private prisons benefit most tax-paying Americans by lowering the cost of prisons, in actuality they make prisons more expensive. The private prison industry is trying to make as much money as possible. Is the goal of the criminal justice system to make a profit for a few private companies or the government?

There is one thing that supporters and opponents of privatization tend to agree on. There are certain public goods and services that should remain in the hands of the government because market outcomes don’t provide efficient outcomes in every sector of the economy. I would argue that the prison system is one of these sectors. Prisoners are human beings whose punishment and rehabilitation is being used in order to make a profit.

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The Power of Language

Being aware of the language we use can be difficult. Powerful institutions regularly use the words “prisoner”, “felon”, “convict”, “criminal”, and “offender”, giving these terms an enormous influence over how our society defines its own members. What are we really saying when we refer to someone as an “offender”? What kinds of images and assumptions are evoked when someone is labeled a “convict”? These are the types of questions that Eddie Ellis, founder of The Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, urges us to think about carefully. Ellis reminds us that, “we habitually underestimate the power of language” and this is especially true for currently/formerly incarcerated individuals. If we truly wish to abolish mass incarceration, then we must also deconstruct the language attached to this system.

Words such as “prisoner” or “ex-con” perpetuate psychological and social distance between people. These terms are derogatory and stigmatic, but there is also an underlying implication that “those people” are inherently different from “us”. Reducing an individual to these labels is dehumanizing and it discourages empathy. When someone says “prisoner”, the following words usually do not come to mind: son, mother, sister, husband, friend, etc. Instead, many people picture violence, hate, and evil, as the media have popularized these stereotypes. Ellis, who was incarcerated for 25 years, explains, “the worst part of repeatedly hearing your negative definition of me, is that I begin to believe it myself.” Repeatedly using this harsh language can teach people to internalize these characterizations. It perpetuates an identity that cannot be separated from the punishment system, leaving no room for change or growth.

The most basic way to make a change is by simply referring to people as “people”. Although it may seem trivial to some, using “formerly incarcerated people”, “returning citizens”, or “people in prison” restores a sense of humanity to these individuals. We cannot allow one action or conviction to define a person as a thing. Even if the media and punishment system stand in our way, we need to actively pursue language that promotes inclusivity, opportunity, and respect.

As we work to transform our use of language, we must look beyond just individuals. The system of surveillance, incarceration, and punishment is usually referred to as the “criminal justice system”. However, this term implies that law enforcement and correctional facilities are dedicated to the pursuit of justice – a claim that is hard to defend with any comprehensive definition of “justice”. Given its undeniably discriminatory nature and its responsibility for widespread suffering, this system is more aptly called the “punishment system.”

Above all, we must connect our language choices back to our own personal experiences. I have a friend who was incarcerated for six years. He is not an “ex-felon”, “ex-convict”, or “criminal”, he is simply my friend. For others, he is a father, a husband, a son, a student, and a leader. Currently and formerly incarcerated individuals can provide so many gifts to this world, let’s make sure our language reflects that fact.

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What is the role of the bystander?

Justice is too often something I sit in class and discuss.  I find myself intellectualizing what it means to be in this world, with one other, with compassion.  I do this out of naivete and from a position of privilege, both of which will tinge the proceeding account:

Last week, on my way to NYU’s campus, I walked into a scene of such visible injustice that I was shocked into my body and its particular intelligence.  Injustice is, after all, something felt at a visceral level.  And it is something seen.

I had walked into the 7 AV subway stop in Brooklyn and there, beyond the turnstile, a stoic, unflinching police officer had a fifteen year old girl handcuffed.  He had apparently called for back-up.  This teenage girl and her friends had gotten into trouble after having jumped the turnstiles (they had their metro passes, but were having some mischievous teenage fun) and unfortunate events had ensued.  I wasn’t there to see what precisely happened; how things escalated to a point where this white male cop would have felt it necessary to aggressively arrest a young teenage woman of color.  But I do know that this teenage girl was thrown to the ground and cuffed in a manner that was inappropriate, unnecessary, and altogether traumatic (I wish I could tell you her name, I wish I could tell you how she is doing.)  Her friends – – ages 14 to 15 – – were gathered around, bewildered and upset.

A crowd of passersby had gathered too, and each person was visibly concerned.  I saw myself and others searching this officer’s face for a sign of recognition or a response but he stood there with a blank expression.  What a missed opportunity at humanity!

The officer had this girl held out before himself, facing the other way.  To look upon this was to see the embodiment of abstraction; a physical staging of the way we deny each other our humanity.  How he refused to look her in the eye!  How he refused to speak to her face to face, but rather spoke to her back!  How he hushed her, and shoed the crowds of witnesses away!  I felt denied my eyes.  We all did.  I can’t get over the extent to which the criminal justice system is carried out through the abstracting of lives; faces turned away and voices denied.

It was so clear, in coming upon this situation I have cited, that justice is something that comes down to the palms; true justice – – mediative and restorative – – is expressed in the gesture of a hand held and guided, rather than in two wrists cuffed.  Isn’t it?

The discomfort was palpable.  I wonder: what could come of it all?  I think: only the tears we saw streaming down a face.  No higher order was appeased.  Only one man’s ego.  What we saw and felt at the level of the body was the truth of the situation (and is.)

There is such danger in ascribing “injustice” and “justice” to invisible spaces; making them concepts beyond ourselves and above us.  This allows us to hold inane rules of conduct over one another in ways that are divisive rather than healing.

Injustice, I think, is loud and apparent and far from pretty.  But justice, too, can be located in this world.  I saw it in the crowd that gathered, and the eyes – – though unmet – – which searched the officer’s for at least a glint of empathy.


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