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History and Other Lessons from Prisons

Posted Aug 28 2013 2:00pm

jail Prisons are often forgotten in education. I remember as a child hearing educators reprimand groups of children at school because of the misbehavior of one or two, yelling threats of the “boys’ school” in town. I don’t remember similar threats directed at girls. But the idea of “behave or go to prison or reform school” was about as deep as our education of prisons went. I believe that prisons should be included in our children’s studies, at least at the junior high and high school levels.  At this point I don’t think it’s a good topic for elementary school children, though a tour of a vacant prison might be an interesting field trip for any age. 

Why Study the History of Prisons

I’m not suggesting that they should be studied to frighten our children into “being good.” My belief is that children who are taught right from wrong without fear learn it the best. There are much better reasons to take a close look at where our less well behaved neighbors live. 

The state of prisons in a specific era bring up many facts about society in general in the same period. Questions that arise from the treatment and rights of prisoners create great opportunities for critical thinking activities. For example:

  • Should prisoners be able to get a college education when behind bars? 
  • Don’t we want our prisoners who are getting out to be better when they live among us so they don’t go back to their old lives? This can be a jumping off point to the specific history of attempts,  programs, successes and failures of reforming prisoners. 
  • Should prisoners be treated with respect by guards? 
  • What laws were prisoners’ lawsuits based on? Do you think the conclusions were correct?
  • What if you were accused and convicted of a crime you didn’t commit? What rights would you want in prison?
  • Does the constitution have anything to do with prisoners and their treatment and rights? 
  • Can prisoners vote when they get out? Should they be able to after they’ve served their time? 
  • Do prisoners have religious rights? What is the job of chaplain. What are some good prison ministries? 

Some Specific Ideas

  • Visiting and touring a vacant prison can be a great starting point. State laws vary about when and if youth can visit active prisons. I found this article with a list of vacant prisons you can tour worldwide . However, I did not find the prison we just toured listed — The Ohio State Reformatory
  • Interviewing guards, wardens, prison nurses, recovery personnel, prosecutors, defense attorneys and prison chaplains with planned questions from their lessons can be a great way of hearing different perspectives.  
  • Study the history of reform and why there were lawsuits against attempts to help prisoners reform. What reform programs are left in prisons today? (Hint: dog training programs, art, education, etc.) 
  • Look at the  Innocence Projec t and people who have been freed because of their efforts. 

Important Warning

Be careful that sources your children read do not glorify famous criminals! 

Can you think of any other good reasons to study the history of prisons? 


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