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Journal of Human Services Fall/2016
Review of College for Convicts:
The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons
Shoshana D. Kerewsky, Deanna Chappell Belcher
With College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons,
Christopher Zoukis (2014) enters the ongoing national debate on rehabilitation versus
punishment for people convicted of crimes. Specifically, he argues that prison education
programs benefit both convicts and society. His particular areas of focus, as well as the questions
left unexplored, provide a basis for useful critical discussion with students, educators, and
One of the book’s chief assets is its accessibility. Human services students who are not
following the ongoing and intensifying national debate about prison reform (for example, who do
not know that prisoners once had access to Pell Grants, then did not, and now might again) will
find Zoukis’s (2014) overview helpful. The book includes an historical overview of prison
education, a discussion of barriers to education faced by both individual convicts and prison
systems, examples of successful programs and partnerships, and resources. His practical
suggestions include approaches used in other countries as well as appendices providing concrete
information, such as sources for prisoners to obtain free and inexpensive books. Zoukis
incorporates references to a great many studies on issues such as the relationship between lack of
education and recidivism, the cost of education versus reincarceration, and the impacts of
educational attainment on both prison functioning and community crime rates. This material will
be extremely helpful for human services students wrestling with these ideas for the first time.
Since human services students and professionals may work with prisoners and people with
previous convictions, both in detention or transition settings and in the general client population,
their increased awareness of these issues will provide an important context for their clients’
experiences and needs. The book should also prove useful for educators and administrators
considering partnerships with prison education programs and developing relevant field study
placements for students.
Zoukis (2014) is currently incarcerated; his book is likely to move and inspire college
students to consider their relative privilege and to challenge their assumptions about people who
are incarcerated. In this regard, the book also serves as a personal, humanizing document, both
through Zoukis’s account of his own story and those of other incarcerated people (including
older people and those serving life sentences). These sections bring the statistics and Zoukis’s
arguments for prisoner education alive.
Zoukis (2014) sometimes loses this personal connection in paragraphs and sections of
dense statistical reportage. Instructors may need to help students find a good balance between
important questions, such as how a community benefits economically when it educates former
offenders, and students’ recognition of shared humanity with the people being discussed.
Students with past convictions may seek entry to human services programs in order to
contribute to the community or help those similar to themselves; Paulson, Groves, and Hagedorn
(in press) note that community college human services programs may not be permitted to
exclude people with criminal backgrounds from enrollment due to open enrollment admissions
Shoshana D. Kerewsky and Deanna Chappell Belcher, Family & Human Services Program, University of Oregon,
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Shoshana D. Kerewsky at [email protected]
Journal of Human Services Fall/2016
policies. In their anonymous survey of 90 enrolled college human services students, 1/3 reported
at least one conviction (17 reported misdemeanors; 13 reported felonies). Given the potential
presence of students who are former prisoners in the human services classroom, the instructor’s
active guidance of the discussion will be crucial for maintaining respectful dialogue and a
welcoming attitude. Paulson, Groves, and Hagedorn also provide a useful discussion of human
services programs’ admissions and conduct gatekeeping considerations related to potential
students with a history of convictions. Classroom and faculty/staff conversations may serve as a
productive starting point for discussions regarding goodness of fit for different careers in human
One of the educational partnerships Zoukis (2014) references is the Inside-Out Prison
Exchange Program, which fosters conversation and learning between incarcerated people and
college students. Inside-Out students regularly describe their experiences as life changing and
extremely meaningful. This is not, as Zoukis states, because undergraduates are trained to teach
in correctional institutions, but because they are open to the experience of learning side by side
in a correctional setting in a group composed of half students who are incarcerated and half
traditional college students. The equalization of power and mutual learning is an important
aspect of the Inside-Out program, making it a superb learning experience for human services
students. Being equals with individuals who are incarcerated allows students to see issues of
incarceration and education in a new light. They come to respect and admire their “inside”
classmates, which surprises many of them and inspires them to step outside the mindset of being
a savior whose role is to help or uplift the prisoners. This is an important component of social
justice education and critical thinking for our undergraduates.
Zoukis (2014) is not highly or explicitly critical of the underlying assumptions behind the
denial of education to incarcerated people. It would be useful for instructors to help students
examine the current and historical political forces that have led to the U.S.’s contemporary prison
industrial complex. In this regard, Zoukis may be taught as one component in a constellation of
readings that include Davis’s (2003) Are Prisons Obsolete? and Alexander’s (2012). The New
Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness.
New York, NY: The New Press.
Davis, A. Y. (2003). Are prisons obsolete? New York, NY: Seven Stories Press.
Paulson, J., Groves, L., and Hagedorn, L. A. (in press). Advocacy in action: Supporting human
services students with a criminal justice history. In S. D. Kerewsky (Ed.), Fitness for the
human services profession: Preliminary explorations Alexandria, VA: Council for
Standards in Human Service Education.
Zoukis, C. (2014). College for convicts: The case for higher education in American prisons.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland