What Happens When Incarceration Meets Education
Lifting the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students is one of Ed Trust’s policy priorities for higher education reauthorization, and we are proud to advocate alongside a broad, bipartisan coalition that is pushing Congress to repeal the ban and provide support for high-quality higher education in prisons.
We believe that quality education in prison has the transformative power to change the lives of individuals incarcerated, their families, and the culture within prisons — and should not be reserved for just a chosen few. But don’t take our word for it. Below is an essay from Second Chance Educational Alliance student Luis Mattei, Jr. Currently incarcerated, “Lu” tells his personal story of the profound impact of education.
If the last 16.5 years behind bars has taught me anything, it’s the value of a quality education. I grew up in a house where my parents emphasized a dedicated focus on my studies, but I was too distracted to notice. Who reads books and does homework while their boys are living fast and loving it? I was never the kid who dipped his toe to test the water; I was either all in or all out.
I was all in.
It came to a halt when I was 19. They say where one life ends, another begins. My circumstances compelled me to examine the fruits of my past and cultivate the seeds of my legacy.
The incarcerated are often stereotyped as opportunists. Is that such a negative trait? Aren’t we all seeking the opportunity to flourish? Most of us come from communities where opportunity is a four-letter word. When we’re too young, we make our own, and we “fail for lack of counsel.”
One thing that expands the potential of the marginalized: exposure. From our public school systems to our cultural experiences, our communities suffer from a lack of dynamic exposure. This deficiency, along with the commensurate poverty, fuels the pipeline that feeds our racially imbalanced prison system.
Why Educate the Incarcerated?
For decades, the incarcerated citizens and residents of this nation have been victims of a propaganda campaign that has stigmatized and vilified us in the public eye. Labels such as “convict,” “super predator,” “felon,” and “offender” are utilized by public policymakers to cultivate an “us against them” mentality. This divisive rhetoric banishes us to a statelessness whereby we are removed from the collective “we” of society.
This nefarious marketing strategy relegates us to the social status of the reconstruction-era freedmen, depicting us as a drain on society’s resources. This is why progressive talk of educating the incarcerated is met with fierce opposition. It seems there is little political palatability in “giving” us an education.
Giving? While the years of my life are spent as restitution for my riotous youth, is there no change left to pay for a quality education? Is my education truly free? If so, I will gladly trade places with any one of you and incur your student loan debt as well as your liberty. If we change the rhetoric, we can transform the conversation.
So, what is the benefit of educating people who are incarcerated? The social dynamic of prison life is ruled by a concrete culture that is rarely susceptible to outside influence. This environment is developing the minds of some of your future neighbors, colleagues, and fellow citizens. Education transforms culture and imbues a sense of self-worth. It renders purpose to the wanderer.
Education for Everyone
Prison education programs are usually offered to men and women serving shorter sentences (five years and under remaining). This structure allows policymakers to compile data to measure success rates by analyzing recidivism statistics. But at what cost? This practice conveys the sentiment that we are worthless until our release is imminent. Also, the pace at which courses are disseminated ensures that the highest degree we can attain within that timeframe is an associate degree, essentially relegating us to the workforce rather than affording us the qualifications to become job creators. As returning citizens, we have taken a step in the right direction, but it should not be our last.
Upon earning my GED in 2007, I promptly enrolled in a business education course offered by our facility’s vocational education department. As the nation’s economy crashed, business education, along with many other opportunities, became a casualty of state budget constraints. In the decade that followed, I — like most of the population — was lulled into routine study habits that operated on cruise control.
After years of limited independent studies, I was given the opportunity to partake in postsecondary education courses offered by Dr. Erin Corbett via her nonprofit organization, Second Chance Educational Alliance. Our September 2017 cohort mainly consisted of men serving more than 25 years. Due to the length of our sentences, we did not qualify for the Second Chance Pell pilot program. Still, Dr. Corbett presented us with our first legitimately challenging educational experience.
On a shoestring budget, she managed to awake a dormant hunger and transform the expectations of the populace. Our experience exposed others to the works of Toni Morrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, George Orwell, and many more. The collective conversation shifted from the mundane, day-to-day prison life to discussions about human nature and our collective capacity. She changed our culture. Dr. Corbett’s influence upon her first cohort triggered a domino effect that compelled men serving shorter sentences to re-evaluate their motives, desires, and purpose, thus altering the course of their effect upon their communities. That is the measure of success; it began with the political irredeemable.
Across the U.S., there have been recent policy changes that are making great strides in prison education reform. However, the current entrance exam model requires applicants to be proficient essay writers. This biased test eliminates a large swath of the population. The ability to write an essay does not measure a person’s intelligence, nor does it determine their ability to function in a classroom.
The most effective and efficient way to educate people is to provide options that cultivate their unique gifts. Jamming them into our cookie-cutter education model will only frustrate them and enhance their failures. Some of the most ingenious, resourceful problem-solvers as well as some of the most creatively gifted artists, sculptors, and musicians I have ever encountered are people I met in prison. What makes them less qualified for a postsecondary experience?
America’s policies need to provide incentives for various educational institutions to invest in the incarcerated citizens and residents of this nation. What is necessary isn’t always popular. In transforming our carceral state into a scholastic entity, we can awaken a generation of dormant minds to the collective conversation. There is work to be done.