We Are More than the Sum of Our Mistakes
John B. King Jr. delivered remarks at a celebration of student success for former students participating in the life-changing Goucher Prison Education Program in Maryland.
Thank you to the Goucher Prison Education Partnership, Amy Roza, and the team at Goucher. Your efforts have a lasting impact on students, their families, and this community.
This year alone, more than 130 Goucher students enrolled in 22 courses while incarcerated.
Thanks to the public and private partners that make programs like this possible, the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, and the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup. Your support is changing lives.
To the families and friends here, and everyone outside this room who supported these former GPEP students in their pursuit of an excellent college education, thank you.
GPEP Students: You’re an inspiration to us all
And, of course, to Kenard Johnson, Michael McKenny, Rena Sard, and Maurice Smith…congratulations.
You inspire us.
You persevered through challenges that most college students never encounter.
You found time to study after a work day that started at 12:30 AM. You became experts in advanced planning so that Goucher professors and staff could help you obtain research material in time to write your papers.
You shared only a few available computers, and treasured every moment of that screen time. Getting to class was often determined by whether there were security lockdowns or locked doors that got in your way.
Amid the challenges, you never lost focus on your goals. And you proved that education is the most powerful second chance.
Education saves lives; it saved mine
I know what it means to be given a second, third, or fourth chance…
I would not be standing here today if it were not for the education I received in New York City public schools and the educators who literally saved my life.
I fight as an advocate for students like me, for students who were told “You’ll never make it;” who got in trouble in class and were led to believe “College is not for you;” who were seen only as the trauma they’d experienced and the mistakes they made.
You see, I lost my parents by the time I was 12 years old. My mom passed away in October of my fourth-grade year and my dad four years later to undiagnosed Alzheimer’s. After my mother passed away and I lived with my dad, home was a scary and unpredictable place.
I remember my dad waking me up in the middle of the night to tell me it was time for school and I didn’t understand why.
As my father got sicker, I remember having to go through drawers to find money to pay bills. (And I remember the shame I felt because, as a child, I worried that I was stealing from my own father.)
Home was chaotic, but school—that was my refuge.
Now, my teachers could have looked at me and said, “Here is a Black and Puerto Rican male student in New York City Public Schools with a family in crisis … what chance does he have?” Instead, they made school a safe and engaging place, where I could be a kid when I couldn’t be a kid at home.
As everyone here knows, no life is a straight line.
When I got to high school, I was angry – like many kids who have experienced trauma. Angry at my parents. Angry at adults. Angry at the world.
I resented authority, made bad choices, and got kicked out of high school. I often say I was the first U.S. Secretary of Education to be kicked out of high school, but I hope that I am not the last. I say that because I understand the importance of second chances.
I am living proof that we are more than our trauma. We are more than the sum of our mistakes. Until we see the humanity in one another, we cannot secure our promise, or the prosperity of our communities and our country.
To the former students here with us today, because of your experience through GPEP and your choice to further your education, you know what it’s like for people to see beyond your missteps and your adversity … and to truly see you, the best of you.
Maurice’s most memorable moment in the Goucher program, for example, involved a correctional officer. Maurice recounts how, one day as he was signing into the computer lab, the officer pulled him aside. Maurice wondered what he had done wrong, but to his surprise, the officer handed Maurice a five-page paper he had written for a college course he was taking and asked Maurice to proofread and review it. In that moment, Maurice said, “This officer saw past my identification number and saw me as a college student.”
Each of you is a scholar. But too many people don’t have the chance to pursue a college education while incarcerated.
Why prison education matters now
Education, and second chances, should not be reserved for just a chosen few.
This is a moral issue. It’s also an economic imperative.
Only about half of adults in prison have a high school diploma or more advanced education. But by next year, about 65% of all American jobs will require some form of college.
We are not setting up our country for success by denying an education to those who are incarcerated and want to do better upon release.
In 1994, Congress banned access to Pell Grants for individuals in our prison system – a symptom of failed “tough-on-crime” policies and the mass incarceration that followed.
I’m proud that the Obama administration created the Second Chance Pell initiative, allowing 65 sites across the country to participate in quality education programs by expanding access to financial aid for people who are incarcerated.
That was an important step. Goucher is one of the sites still operating today. But, we need a permanent solution. We need to expand access to Pell for incarcerated individuals, everywhere in America.
My organization, The Education Trust, is proud to be part of a broad and bipartisan coalition advocating for Congress to lift the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students.
This is smart policy. Research shows incarcerated individuals who receive high-quality correctional education are 43% less likely to return to prison than those who don’t participate.
What’s more, getting an education in prison can have a positive effect on those who serve long-term or life sentences without parole. Access to education can change the culture inside institutions. And for the families of those serving time, seeing their loved ones work to better themselves can help break cycles of poverty, addiction, and involvement in the justice system.
It’s beyond time for criminal justice reform that includes access to quality postsecondary education options in prison.
This should be the first step in reducing barriers to reentry, but we’ve got much more work to do to help individuals successfully reenter society.
There are up to 44,000 legal barriers to reentry for people who have a criminal record—such as not being able to access public housing or critical economic supports, including the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.
We cannot talk about reforming our criminal justice system without acknowledging all of the systems of injustice and oppression that have harmed disenfranchised communities—particularly communities of color—for generations.
State-sanctioned discrimination, including racist redlining policies of decades past, contribute to segregated neighborhoods and segregated schools that still exist today.
Segregated schools receive less resources, and because of less access to opportunity and quality public education, the wealth gap between people of color and White Americans continues to grow.
Children of color are shuttled from under-resourced schools to overcrowded jails via a school-to-prison pipeline that sends a message to boys and girls of color that education is not for them.
There is environmental racism in Flint; and Black mothers and Black babies are dying at unacceptable rates because of disparities in access to quality healthcare. This is all connected.
As citizens, we must disrupt and dismantle systems founded on the premise of institutional racism, sexism, and privilege. It is our civic duty. It’s how we build a movement toward justice.
Justice is just us
As I close out, I want to encourage you to always fight for justice. It really takes…JUST US .. all of us working together for the opportunities that every person with dreams and determination deserves.
To Kenard, Michael, Rena, and Maurice, it takes courage to make a change in your life, to persevere, to take control of your success. YOU…did that. Use your experiences as part of GPEP for good. Make something more of your future than your past, but don’t let go of your past. Use it as fuel to claim your place in the history books.
Last month, I met Kareem McCraney – Kareem went to prison when he was a teenager. He was released last year at 38 years old. While in prison, Kareem worked toward a degree in paralegal studies. Today, he is a program analyst with the DC Corrections Information Council. He and his mother are here with us.
Remember Kareem’s words: “Education is liberating. The more you know, the more you can do. Education expands your mind and opens you up to possibilities that are endless.” Your possibilities are endless. I’m honored to celebrate your achievements with you.
Congratulations, and thank you