The Miseducation of America

By S. Harlan King

Editor’s Note:  This essay by Shane King – a MFM member who has been incarcerated since 1991- isn’t directly about the Peace Testimony, but maybe it is.  The author suggests that educating prisoners is a way to end prison recidivism and reduce crime and punishment in America.  Could that foster peace?  Perhaps.  We chose to include this article in the edition focused on the Peace Testimony and let our readers decide.

The rate of recidivism for prisoners who achieve an associate degree or better is minuscule relative to those who do not. 95% of the 1.5 million people incarcerated in the US will eventually be released and according to a 2017 national Institute of justice survey 67.8% of the approximately 650,000 prisoners released every year will be back in prison within three years, with over half returning within one year. Conversely studies consistently show that an associate degree reduces that number to approximately 11% to 17%. With a bachelors  that number dropped to 6%. It’s practically a panacea.

A 2013 study by the Rand Corporation posits that we save five dollars for every one dollar we invest in educating prisoners. That also means a potential 80% reduction in the money we have to devote to imprisoning America’s sons and daughters. So why was it that in 1994 when Bill Clinton and the Republican congress negotiated the crime bill they added a provision which bans prisoners from receiving pel grants to help them obtain an education?

It’s the story politicians sell, “bad people are out to get you. Give us power and we will stop the coddling and punish them in the extreme to make you safe“. The underlying assumptions about what motivates and deters crime are flawed and it actually makes the public less safe, but it is the perception of being safer which quails our fears. Challenging those assumptions in soundbites is ineffective and likely to put a target on your back so it gets people elected and stays intact.

Primetime network TV is dominated by cop shows; Law and Order, FBI, CSI, and on and on. The local “news“ invariably includes two or three stories about crime. It entails a little more than reading a police report, so it fills airtime with little cost and it gets viewers. But these stories are almost exclusively the unchallenged narrative proffered by police, prosecutors and politicians; criminals are not portrayed as human beings but as one dimensional caricatures out to hurt society. How do we expect the public not to believe a narrative with which they are bombarded? And how does anyone find a jury pool in light of this, that isn’t so biased for the prosecution that a fair trial is unlikely?

It’s no wonder that so many Americans believe the crime rate has skyrocketed. Yet according to the US Department of Justice, while the US crime rate rose approximately 70% between 1970 and 1990, the prison population rose 400%. And while the crime rate dropped to 1970 levels between 1990 and 2010, the prison population rose another 200% to 821% over 1970 levels. The population and the crime rate have both been in a slow decline over the past 12 years. (These numbers also include the incarceration of the discarded and swept up mentally ill in America, but that is another essay.)

Education is the cure we know works. Miseducation has deprived us of this powerful elixir. And that has diminished the safety and humanity of us all. “We are locked in a destiny of mutuality” said MLK “what affects one affects all…“ What is in this world, I came to see after much soul searching, is what we put into it. We can add our understanding, our compassion; we can endeavor to heal. Or we can add our fear, woundedness and vengeance. What we cannot do is expect that the world will be different than what we put into it. The question is what kind of world do we want for ourselves and our children and how do we get there?


I was arrested for homicide in 1989. I was horrified by what I had done. I was one of those who had brought fear, pain and suffering in the world. I didn’t acquire what I brought by myself. Other wounded people brought it to me. “Hurt people hurt people” as someone said. But I am the only one who can break that cycle and fix whatever was wrong with me. I vowed to do just that.

To begin with I sat in an empty cell for weeks looking inward and asking questions. I learned more about myself, life, and the human condition in those weeks than I had in the 26 years preceding them.

The first thing I learned was that I had lost track of my humanity and the ability to recognize it in others. I became conscious of aspersions replaying in the back of my mind that said I was inept, stupid, unlovable, and also how I would interpret events in light of those beliefs. But more significantly, I could find no real basis for those beliefs. It’s just what I’d been told about myself. And the people who had said those things had acquired them the same way. That recognition helped awaken in me the ability to feel the pain I had caused.

It also awakened a thirst for knowledge. What is the nature of anger? What is fear and how does it arise? What distinguishes fear from anger? What is love? How is it different from peace and joy or curiosity or the empathy I could now feel? How would I protect this rejuvenated empathy? Especially given the stresses and trauma of the life I had ahead of me in prison.

There were volunteers, religious and otherwise, who would come to the jail. I’d share my thoughts, and they’d recommend and often bring me books. Psychology would lead to questions about spirituality or sociology, then to history. Literary citations would lead to other authors; Kahill Gibran, Lao Tzu, Dostoyevsky, Noam Chomsky, Toni Morrison. I wanted to know how other people saw the world. What it was like to be in their shoes. I got over my shyness and started just asking people about themselves.

The biggest question was epistemological, “how do I know anything?” I have this brain which relies on limited senses, a consciousness no one seems able to define or understand. Even the nature of matter is in dispute. Awake to the unfathomable nature of human ignorance there is nothing which is not education. Life is a working theory being tested and a mystery being explored every moment.

I arrived at Waupaun prison in 1991. There was an associate degree program at the prison and no end of people to debate with about whatever subject arose. Usually to do with the humanities. Even people who weren’t interested in education otherwise would start reading and asking questions just to be able to join the conversations. You’d hear debates over the tier, in the chow hall, and people who would not normally associate would join in. I’ve never been to college but I imagine it must be a lot like that. The elation of discovery and prospect of new mysteries to explore. I envy young college students.

When I was in high school I would skip class to explore the river and woods. I always felt safer in the woods than I did around people. I’d get detention and skip out on that so I ended up with more detention then there were days in the year. It was either serve it or drop out. I dropped out. So in preparation to apply for a Pell grant I first took the HSED tests. I passed, but by the time I had everything lined up there was word that the Pell grants would no longer be available to prisoners. My family wasn’t going to pay for college. I did inherit all the textbooks they used so I read those, and there is PBS. My girlfriend calls me the king of documentaries because every time she asks me where I learned some little fact I say I saw it in a documentary.

In 2015 the Obama administration created the “second chance Pell program” offering Pell grants to prisoners for the first time since 1994. It is a noble thought, but there are 12,000 grants and about 1.5 million prisoners in the US. And lifers aren’t eligible. The CARES act reinstated prisoners’ eligibility for Pell grants so there may be hope we’ll see. It is taking quite a while to implement.

I am nearly 60 now. I am an autodidact and I question everything; especially myself. I’ve been incarcerated for 32 years. I’ve never been bored. I find joy every day. I never have time to do all that I want to do. And I still have the humanity I was so fortunate to find again despite the system which so routinely abolishes it in many prisoners less fortunate than I.

It’s been some years since I’ve had a good debate here. When you walk into the chow hall or the day room these days the debate topics are much different; how to cook meth, how to hustle, which baller made the most money last year. I’m not interested. But the people who will have to deal with those we leave behind might want to think about what that means for the world we all have to share.

In the light,

Shane King