Educational Courses for Prisoners: Remembering a Huge Success

October, 2016

Lincoln and Berlin -- The passing of the German historian Karl Dietrich Bracher reminds us of the value of bringing education programs into prisons. We are indebted to Bracher, a former German POW in WWII, for writing a clear-eyed, comprehensive history of the Nazis and their evils. He taught in universities in Berlin and Bonn.

Bracher was a prisoner at the POW camp in Concordia, Kansas. He took courses there as offered by the University of Kansas. KU offered 300 courses to POWs, for academic credit. Others who took KU courses at the camp were the architect Harald Deilmann (who later designed the school my children attended in Berlin-Zehlendorf) and Reinhard Mohn, who built Bertelsmann into a multinational publishing empire. The return from the investment in such courses for prisoners has been enormous.

What a contrast to today. Higher education institutions now offer few if any programs in prisons, as I noted in a previous post. Nebraska has unprecedented problems in its Department of Corrections, due to lack of educational programming for prisoners and severely overcrowded facilities. But until riots broke out and prisoners began attacking guards on a regular basis, Nebraska's elected officials seemed not to care. In 2014, the Nebraska attorney general (who failed to supervise Corrections attorneys, resulting in many premature prisoner releases) campaiged for the office of governor on a do-nothing platform: "We can make people share rooms. I mean, if you don't like that you have to share a room, don't get yourself sent to prison,” Jon Bruning said. The question of educational programming was invisible in the campaign.

After nearly two years of further inaction, the Ricketts Administration is finally moving ahead with facility planning and has initiated at least some new programming, although it appears as if Defy Ventures is more like a rally at an Amway convention than a serious educational turnaround.

It's appropriate to remember that the Concordia camp was constructed in only 90 days, and included a 177-bed hospital. The camp operated only two years, from 1943-45. A state university conducted 300 courses in that time, some of which set prisoners on the way to making futures for themselves and significant contributions to society. That history should be an inspiration to us.