Prisoners:

Continue to Reach Out
or Time to Leave Out?

There are some within the georgist movement who are opposed to offering HGI courses to prisoners. They suppose that prisoners lack either the intellect or the credibility to help the georgist movement grow; they believe that their limited resources are wasted on them. Some say that associating with prisoners taints our other activities in people's minds. When I come right out and state this position, it sounds absurd -- but there it is.

First, and most important, the term "prisoner" should not be thought of as a class of people, but rather as someone confined in a place where numerous classes of people can be found. For example: to someone who knows the difference between an ocelot, a lion, a jaguar, a bobcat and a lynx -- not to mention a persian, siamese or an abyssinian -- people who glibly claim to "know all about cats" are probably not worth talking to.

People in prison are as diverse as the whole society -- and this is clearly seen today, with our exploding prison population. The major difference between prisoners and non-prisoners is that the overwhelming majority of prisoners come from broken or dysfunctional family backgrounds, have suffered many forms of abuse, and enter prison with little formal education. Their self- esteem is -- for obvious reasons -- extremely low. They find in HGI courses a way to improve their self-esteem and their basic learning skills.

But some critics begrudge them this, declaring that once they get out of prison, the georgists won't hear from them again. Would the Nike shoe company refuse to sell shoes to Indians living on reservations, because they probably won't wear the logo outside the reservation?

Let's remember that inmates are not receiving free courses. They pay the same fee that others do. The HGI's extremely low prices make its courses attractive to prisoners -- even so, though, they have to save for two months to enroll in one. The average pay for an inmate is $23. Out of this, they must supply their own necessities such as soap, toothpaste, stationery, etc. A doctor visit is $4. The average inmate, buying nothing but the barest necessities, can save about $16 per month. (The HGI's basic course is $27.)

Actually, as I see it, we need to enroll more prisoners in HGI courses. If we could enroll 20% of the inmates in the Pennsylvania state system alone, we would have 7,000 more students!

Yes, but perhaps they are not the "right" sort of students; perhaps such a strong association with the "dregs of society" in prison would harm our reputation. What would Henry George himself say about that? In Social Problems he says this:

Many there are, too depressed, too embruted with hard toil and the struggle for animal existence, to think for themselves. Therefore the obligation devolves with all the more force on those who can. If thinking men are few, then they are for that reason all the more powerful. Let no man imagine that he has no influence. Whoever he may be, and wherever he may be placed, the man who thinks becomes a light and a power.

Or are prisoners not smart enough? If not, then why do prisoners, who lack so much, have an easier time grasping George's thesis than middle-class college graduates?

One real problem I find today is the saturation of fictional prison dramas, moves, and exaggerated prison documents that too many people accept as factual. In the real world, everything in prison life is micro-managed. Movement is limited. Rules are numerous to the point of accidental contradiction. Education consists of a GED program. There are no student loans or college scholarship programs in prisons. The only avenue available is self-study, and low-cost correspondence programs -- which helps to explain the popularity of the HGI's program.

Maybe it would be fair to point out that I am biased on this issue: I have been teaching georgist political economy from prison since 1990 and the experience has meant a great deal to me.

-- Thomas M. Lyons -- March, 2001


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