Turning prisons into schools: John L. at TEDxMonroeCorrectionalComplex
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Turning prisons into schools: John L. at TEDxMonroeCorrectionalComplex

Translator: Delia Cohen
Reviewer: Ellen Maloney My name is John, and I’m incarcerated
right here in Monroe Correctional Complex. And I want to talk to you about
changing the prison paradigm. To do this, we must address
the misconceptions that we have about crime and incarceration. You see we think
that crime is the problem. But the truth is the pains of crime
are really a symptom, warning us of a problem in our society. Much like pain in your left arm
or a tightness in your chest or a shortness of breath is a symptom warning you there’s a problem
with your heart. In that same sense, there’s a problem
in the hearts of our society. We see in the racial disproportionalities
of our justice system and the failings
of our educational system and our socioeconomic inequalities. Many crimes are merely symptoms
of these problems and trying to solve them through
mass incarceration is not the cure. That’s like taking aspirin to ease
the symptoms of a heart attack, which will work, temporarily, but it will not fix the problem,
which is the heart. And in that same sense, there’s a problem
in the heart of our society. Now, what do we do about this? Since I’ve been here the last 16 years
I saw so many men, children, coming in and out of this
revolving door we call prison. In my experience, lack of education
is at the heart of the many problems that lead to prison. In fact, if you will, raise your hand
if you believe that lack of education contributes to incarceration
and recidivism. Wow, well if we all believe
there’s a direct correlation between lack of education
and incarceration as well as the rate of recidivism, why don’t we turn prisons into schools? (Applause) (Cheers) That way, we can address
the symptoms, which is crime, and at the same time address what many
would call the heart of the problem: lack of education. And, yeah. I said,
“Turn prisons into schools.” Did I get your attention? Let me tell you how
this idea came to me. When I was around nine years old, a bunch of friends and I were trashing
this empty lot in my neighborhood: breaking bottles,
kicking over potted plants. There was this old wooden shack
we used to practice our karate on, trying to break the boards. None of us really knew karate though. And then one of my friends’ grandmothers
caught us, Mrs. Alice. She called our parents, asked
for permission to deal with us herself. Now if you’ve ever had your parents called
on you, you know how bad this is. (Laughter) But when I found out this elderly woman
would be in charge of my punishment, I figured I’d get off easy. Boy, was I mistaken. (Laughter) You want to talk about misconceptions:
this sweet old lady was tough as nails. I come to find out,
that wasn’t just an empty lot. It was a rundown community garden. She said our punishment
was we had to fix it up. Next thing I know, my friends’ allowance
money, even my paper route money was going to pay for dirt,
seed, and fertilizer. She even made us pay for, print up,
and pass out flyers in our neighborhood, explaining what we did wrong
and how we planned to atone for it by renovating this garden. Now, amazingly enough,
our community came out and helped. We grew corn, lettuce, cabbage, potatoes;
I loved the tomatoes. We even turned that old wooden
shack into a greenhouse. I learned a lot about cultivating
but more importantly I learned not just what I did wrong
but why it was wrong. I learned how good it felt to do the right
thing and give back in a real way. How amazing it felt that my community
believed enough and cared enough to invest and impart these values to me. It’s the strangest thing. That wasn’t just a garden to me. It was my punishment;
it was also a school for me. This, this is what we need
to do in prisons today. Well, I’m not saying we should call
people’s grandmothers. But could you imagine that? A bunch of grandmas shuffling around,
snatching up prisoners by their ears? (Laughter) But, what I do mean, is we need
to cultivate a place of learning, a place where prisoners
can work with the community to give back in a real way. In that garden Mrs. Alice taught me
the whole purpose of punishment was to teach me, to educate me,
so that I made different choices. And when I thought about it, I realized
yet another misconception that we have. Like Mrs. Alice, prisons are supposed
to be teaching a lesson, educating, so that these men and women
make better choices in the future. But somehow we’ve become so fixated
on the punishment part, we’re missing the whole point. And when I thought about it, it hit me. And I saw it as clear as day. Just for a moment, imagine,
if we turned prisons into schools. Oh yeah. (Laughter) (Applause) What if we took policies and legislation that are overwhelmingly
weighted toward punishment, and we balanced them out by focusing
them on education, redemption as well? What if we saved a small percentage
of penitentiaries that exist today, designate them for initial assessment,
placement, behavior management, and then reorganize
all other prisons into schools: high schools, vocational trade schools,
technical institutes, colleges? Imagine. Now obviously we all know
the reason for the fences, the razor wire, and the walls
are to ensure suspension of freedoms. But behind these fences and razor wire, behind these walls, we should be focused
on rehabilitation through education. Now this is not something
that can be forced or coerced. But if a prisoner is showing
the desire to change and grow, if they have a knack for art,
architecture, math, engineering, we should be telling them,
we have classes for that. If they’re dedicated
to leaving a life of crime, and want to become counselors
for at-risk youth to prevent kids from making the same
mistakes they made when they were young, we should be cultivating
these positive aspirations. If we turn prisons into schools, we could take committees
like multidisciplinary teams, facility risk management teams,
which for one, it’s a mouthful. If you’re not familiar with these terms,
I don’t expect you to remember them. They’re just classification reviews
in prison that assess prisoners, determining what they should do and where
they should go while they’re incarcerated, and they’re closed off to the public. We could take those, exchange
them for community conferences. First thing we do:
open them up to the public. Let the community see the actions that prisoners
are making toward atonement. Let them see the steps
institutions are making to facilitate and hold
prisoners accountable. After all, it’s our community
that’s the heart of our society. It’s where these prisoners were raised, where they committed their crimes,
where they will eventually be released. And these communities have
as much right, responsibility, and duty to be a part of the process as DOC,
Department of Corrections. Just imagine, if we turn
prisons into schools, we could take things like custody levels,
replace them with grade levels where the higher the grade level achieved through the completion
of educational and cognitive programs furthered access for reintegration, allowing prisoners to use
what they’ve learned at their respective schools
to earn back their place in society. And by doing this, we could take
the general public’s lack of information, the growing communal fear
regarding a prisoner’s release and transform that into a graduation, an acceptance back into society
supported by the community’s knowledge of a prisoner’s personal progression. I say turn prisons into schools, because it’s not enough to simply bring
educational programs behind these walls. No. Just like Mrs. Alice taught me: it’s not enough to simply throw seeds
in the ground; you’ve got to fertilize it. You’ve got to till the soil. You’ve got to water it. And if the environment is not conducive
to producing the type of plants you want, you’ve got to change the environment. In this same sense, we need
to change the environment in prison. We need a greenhouse, because as prisons function today,
they’re an environment of marginalization, objectification, an environment that is increasingly
becoming counterproductive to the very ideals of correction that the Department
of Corrections is named for. It’s become so systemic that even
terms I’m conditioned to accept and identify with, terms
you will hear today, often repeated: “inmate,” “offender,” “convict” –
they marginalize me. They marginalize us. And I can tell you
from personal experience that if you’re under
such conditions long enough, it’s likely you’ll begin to feel like
you’re incapable of growth and change. That no matter what you do,
you’ll never become a better person. And this environment is not just affecting the prison population,
but the prison staff as well. Staff who find themselves
struggling between treating us like the human beings we are, or treating us like
the less than human objects these institutions have come
to define us as. Despite the good intentions of many
that work within the system, despite the good intentions
of many in this very room, instead of rehabilitating
these men and women in prison, we’re institutionalizing them. And because of our misconceptions
about crime and incarceration, we’re perpetuating a disservice, an injustice on our neighborhoods, our families, when we’re not properly rehabilitating
these men and women in prison before we release them
into our communities. Ask yourself: do you want
institutionalized ex-convicts being released into your neighborhoods? Or would you rather have
rehabilitated men and women graduating back into society? Imagine. You see it? So, why don’t we shed our misconceptions? Why don’t we address
the heart of the problem? Why don’t we cultivate
a place of learning? Why don’t we turn prisons into schools? Thank you for your time. (Applause) (Cheers)

About James Carlton

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37 thoughts on “Turning prisons into schools: John L. at TEDxMonroeCorrectionalComplex

  1. I very strongly agree John L.  Thank you so much.  Keep planting those seeds, keep telling people your ideas.  I believe the change you're looking for is coming.  

  2. I often think about this very thing. Our education system does not prepare children for peaceful society. If every child knew true life skills that help them live abundant and effective lives they could break the chains of incarceration. Instead of teaching boring history facts and other test facts that no one is excited to learn I feel everyone should learn Steven Covey, Tony Robbins, Marshall Rosenberg, Wayne Dyer, meditation, self understanding, mental thoughts and choice, how to grow healthy food, communicate and then also learn a career they love to do and we will have no need for prisons at all. We are failing our children, they should not be punished for our educational failings.  

  3. Sounds good in theory. Who would teach at this school? How much would they make? Will it be worth the risk? How much do we the tax payers have to pay? Are the class rooms going to be segregated? One of the bigger problems is that usually people group up together and build little gangs in schools, especially in inner city schools like the one I went to. You would think everyone would have an interest in learning things and bettering themselves but some of our instructors would rather watch television in class and befriend the students rather than enforce rules. In result these instructors favored students for different reasons, sometimes by race, sometimes by gender, sometimes by bribes. So then what do you do to replace instructors? Online courses? A lot of online courses give online tests and anyone who is a little studied in technology and computers knows you can Google paste your questions online for just about any question and get the answer. Besides those questions how do you determine which prisoner get what benefits? For example let's say some guy rapes women and children is he going to be in the same room as the guy who sold pot who is sitting next to the investment banker who invented bitcoin? Because there are a lot of smart prisoners out there who would totally pass those classes get out and find another scheme to make fast money. The more I think about this the more questions keep coming up. How are these classes going to help them with their problems? Do we need psychiatrists to diagnose these guys to determine how to help them? How much is that going to cost? I'm asking not because I don't want to help them but because I might have to commit some crime just to afford this new law in addition to the "affordable health care plan" and all these other things we have to pay for. The more I live in this country the more like a prisoner I already feel.

  4. I have never thought that crime was just a symptom of a society rather than a problem. It seems to me a good reasoning

  5. Nail on the head T.K. System is corrupt just like the politicians…..well they are all tied together so it makes sense. When you see how the Washington Department of Corrections shelters and protects its own management when they mess up it turns the stomach. How much money is thrown away while paying these people for newly fabricated jobs until the heat blows over and then throw them back in the mix. Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds? When is it enough for the department to clean up its act for real?

  6. We need to rally all citizens behind this goal.  It's hard to convince the "general public" who think that prisoners "have it easy".  Everyone needs to subscribe to Prison Legal News (started by Paul Wright while he was incarcerated in a Washington State prison 25 years ago).  People need to know what's really happening in prisons.  As an official visitor in my state, I've gotten to know a lot of prisoners – especially the mental health guys who have been warehoused in prisons for being mentally disturbed, even mentally challenged! – and it' a real tragedy 'cause they haven't been getting help they need.  I love and respect these kids and they've grown to respect me, too.  I'm "old" and a lot of them call me "Gramma" because they have no families who give them moral support.  Keep up the good work John L.!  We'll prevail!  We'll prevail!  We MUST prevail!

  7. The only problem is, schools are still a type of prison… Your child goes to school, to be trained to obey the system. If they ask questions or want to be different, laws are put in place to stop them doing this. Around 80% of crimes are not hurtful crimes at all. Just ways to make the government more money. The modern system we have today, is no better then a slave system of yesterday. If we need change, it needs to start in our schools. To let children think, not to be taught not to question the system, that we already have in place today.

  8. Education [programs] in and of itself does not reduce recidivism. IM John L., while sincere and polished, is not persuading a critical audience.

  9. we should be turning prisons into schools, but instead America is turning schools into prisons. Security guards, metal detectors, cameras, rfid chips, and zero tollerance laws that crack down on any form of self expression the school doesn't like. we are arresting children and expelling them from school for the most minor of offenses like profanity, or chewing a poptart into the shape of a gun.

  10. didn't most prisons in America have educational programs ..I know the juvenile detention center have classes in them… right

  11. This is why i am grateful to live in Norway, not only do we have a
    working prison system based on rehabilitating. We also (at least where i
    live), have understanding teachers, they build the system around us,
    not building us around the system. We, the pupils, have a lot to say
    when it comes to how the school is run. We can complain to the "state"
    and we will get things done, recently, we got 3 teachers and one of the
    managers fired, because they didn't care about the pupils. And were
    treating us like prisoners…

  12. People start doing illegal Shit just to get a free college education. Fuk 3 hots n cart
    Definitely busting cause this really is not joke. Many times you have a young person go in and up out as the leader of a gang.

  13. Wow that is a really great piece. I can believe that the prisoner loses faith that they can change, if they are given a better opportunity in learning what they want in life, because it comes from their heart, then they can go back into the community with a better mind and attitude.

  14. Prisons are a misunderstanding. The purpose of a Correctional Officer is to ensure a safe environment while trained professionals treat the inmates. Prisons are not an environment of staring at walls "doing time". It has become an environment where a "small time crook" graduates to a "big time crook". They became focused on themselves and could not advance to taking care of others. This is why you have petty theft (milk, socks, etc.) instead of going to work providing a service (the labor force, repairing computers, etc). Most pull crimes to make ends meet until they are taught it is not necessary. Some criminals of action are because they felt the need to act a certain way (robbing others, join a gang, etc.) until they discover who didn't visit them, or let the neighborhood forget their name. Families are far more powerful. Prisons are designed to realign their world so they can discover how much more they can accomplish with a different mindset they are not used to. Many learn this through advancing education and want to show others how to avoid the painful turmoil they traveled so avoid repeating the same mistakes and make better decisions.

  15. For those who want to learn its fine. But sorry to say I've worked with some who dont want to learn

  16. By far one of the best TED Talks I've ever seen! This talk is well written and brilliantly delivered. "Somehow we've become so fixated on punishment, we miss the whole point." Thank you John L. I pray that your vision becomes a reality. As a public speaker you have provoked me to cultivate my craft like never before.

  17. Great public speaker. However: having a felony can seriously prevent a recently released individuals from gaining decent employment.

  18. Great concepts but this can't happen in America until we stop dumping Billions of dollars into universal welfare which is a breeding ground for criminals.

  19. its not enough to turn the prisons into schools. Although i agree education is important, what is more important is understanding the fundamental concepts of a well structure family unit and morality in the home. This is the area that is lacking and it needs to be taught. im sorry to say but most of the convicts are raised fatherless or damn near fatherless. They have to teach males how to be men and proper fathers.

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