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The Last Graduation: The Rise and Fall of College Programs in Prison cover image

The Last Graduation: The Rise and Fall of College Programs in Prison 2005

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Deep Dish TV, 339 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10012; 212-473-8933
Produced by Zahm Productions and Deep Dish TV
Director n/a
DVD, color,

College - Adult
Criminal Justice, Sociology, Education, Urban Studies

Date Entered: 12/12/2006

Reviewed by LaRoi Lawton, Library & Learning Resources Department, Bronx Community College of the City University of New York

“Since 1991, 4,600 inmates have graduated from college prison programs. But the number dropped drastically in the mid-1990s, when both state and federal governments eliminated grants to prisoners for college education. Marist College, which once ran programs in several area prisons, runs none. Dutchess Community College runs a much smaller program than it previously did, using private foundation money. Formerly, the government grants provided about $2,500 to $3,800 annually per inmate, officials of those programs said, enough to provide faculty members for several major fields of study. The program was relatively inexpensive because overhead -- the prison facility -- was cheap, they said.”

Nonetheless, "While possession of a college degree may contribute to a lower recidivism rate, the general public does not want tax dollars paying for inmates to attend college," Commissioner Glenn Goord wrote last April. "I had to work and do whatever I had to do to get my children through college," said Dennis Fitzpatrick, a retired sergeant and public relations director for the correction officers union. "Now giving a multi-felon the same opportunity, I don't think it's fair." –Poughkeepsie Journal, November 17, 2000.

The Last Graduation: The Rise and Fall of College Programs in Prison and the above indicated article taken from the Poughkeepsie Journal, a local newspaper from upstate New York, illustrates the controversial issues surrounding college programs in prisons geared towards reducing recidivism. For some taxpayers, the very existence of on-site programs like the accredited bachelor's degree at Marist College is contentious. In fact, prison colleges were all but decimated in 1994 when Congress passed a crime bill eliminating Pell Grants for incarcerated men and women. In the past few years, college programs have begun a sluggish comeback--primarily at the behest of volunteer professors and grad students, and under the sponsorship of private, religious institutions. Nationally, the only higher education program that's still publicly funded is for youthful offenders. What catalyzed the on-site education movement, and what made it a household issue was the uprising at Attica State Prison in New York. On September 9, 1971, Attica inmates, who had been living in squalid conditions, took the prison guards hostage. Their demands included minimum-wage payment for their labor (they were earning 30 cents a day), better medical treatment, more black and Spanish-speaking guards, and access to education.

The Last Graduation illustrates the conflict between academic culture and prison culture. "To be educated is to become a critical thinker and dissent.” It's what all educators want their students to do. But then when inmates do it, they get sledge-hammered. In prison, all challenges to authority are intrinsically threatening. This program can be interpreted on many levels: these men made wrong choices that resulted in their incarceration; at the same time, the decision to allow them access to an education that will free their minds is also, to some a wiser and much more humane decision. To others, these inmates need punishment, not education.

The viewer is introduced to inmates like Eddy Ellis in a New York State prison for 25 years, Doc Dowdy, in prison for 35 years and Mario Andre, another inmate and valedictorian for the graduating class of 1995 from Marist College (one of the few colleges in New York State that had such a program) as the conflict between punishment, recidivism and rehabilitation is debated across many venues. While the program appears to be dated, (c1998) the issues are not. The more positive responses to these programs have been met with enthusiasm by the inmates themselves and have shown a proven means to reduce instances of violence within prisons.

Studies have shown that “participants in prison education, vocation and work programs have recidivism rates 20-60 percent lower than those of non-participants.” (The Nation, March 4, 2005) However, support for these programs is rapidly diminishing. If the trend continues, prisons are likely to become merely overcrowded holding cells which release inmates without alternatives and tools and skills to apply for jobs, and become legitimate members of the community. This trend more than likely guarantees these inmates will become repeat offenders and return to prisons reinforcing the cycle of crime and punishment. The Last Graduation is proof that such programs do work at reducing recidivism. Unfortunately, society does not see it that way. You do the crime, you do the time; punishment, not education. While the quality of this DVD is not that great, it content useful and current. Highly recommended.