“It’s the State Pen, not Penn State” Three Professors Go to Prison!

Every once in a awhile, I get to write an excited blog because after some years, a new book is published. Or rather a book I wrote is published! This is one of these blogs. The pretentiously titled Vocational Prison Education in the United States by Andy Dick, Bill Rich, and Tony Waters is now available for your reading pleasure! The title not quite catch your attention? Well ok, here is what we really wanted to call it: Three Professors Go To Prison. Our publisher, who knows about things like marketing $100.00 books to academic libraries, insisted the former title was better. And they got their way. Now you can do us a big favor by making sure that your library buys the book, and you read it. To convince you that it is worth reading, a couple of the “vignettes” which describe our experiences behind the walls of California’s prisons are linked below.

One reason the publisher chose such a boring title is that the origin of the book is in fact pretty boring. In 2008, the three of us, all professors at California State University, Chico, were hired by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to evaluate the vocational education courses they started in 2007 with a half billion bucks signed off by California’s Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger who has a tough guy movie persona, also has the heart of a Austrian youth who himself went through vocational training at in Europe at a young age. As Califrornia’s governor, he wanted to nurture criminals into following a better path—by training them for the job market. This is all fine, and still a little boring. But what made a seemingly boring project really interesting for three geeky professors was that we would have unusual access to inmates, teachers, correctional officers, and prison administrators. (At least that was the cock-n-bull tale we told ourselves. To be honest, we were probably just pretentious).

So for three years Andy, Bill, and I were in and out of California’s prisons, watching the programs we were evaluating crumble under the weight of first the Great Recession, and then a US Supreme Court decision which noted that the conditions in California’s over-crowded prisons were in fact cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore unconstitutional.

I know what you are thinking. Why is a stupid report about vocational education of any relevance to anybody when the prisons were in financial free fall, and an instrument of mass cruelty to boot? Anyway, if you weren’t thinking that, we were. And to be honest, the hard-working vocational teachers, correctional officers, and prison administrators were probably wondering the same thing. They put their hearts into Governor Schwarzenegger dream, while trying to maintain the day-to-day reality of their life in a prison on which the justice system was placing demands to rehabilitate, punish, protect the public, and ensure security all at the same time   And thus this book which is really about the contradictions in nurturing human minds through education, in a place that is designed to punish the human mind. As one wise prison officer reminded us, “This is the state pen, not Penn State.”

So yes, this is a book about writing a report. But the back story is indeed interesting, and in a lot of respects what gives the book legs. Here are some short extracts:

Chapter 2 Applied Research in California’s Prisons
Chapter 7 Sunglasses
Chapter 14 Educators only Whisper in a Custody World

Like I wrote above, please ask your library to order a copy!


Originally posted at Ethnography.com January 8, 2016