Education and the Justice System: A Few Ways Forward

Incarcerated people are relatively invisible, in our society. That is, they’re rendered invisible by laws that make it difficult for them to vote, to educate themselves, or to communicate with the outside world via email and social media. It’s important that we educate ourselves about the current for-profit criminal justice system and the need for reform and change from within the system. This means not only pointing out the need for increased policing of the police, but a call for more not-for-profit/small business entrepreneurs and social justice advocates to look into how they may be able to help transform the nature of the for-profit prison industry to better serve the people they intend to lock up.

The criminal justice system is due for serious reform on many fronts, but one front, in particular, is of great need: the education of inmates and prior inmates is in dire need of reform. It makes no sense that some of the people who could stand to benefit the most from education are denied access to that education. The denial of federal Pell grants to inmates—part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 —renders people confined to the prison system invisible and abandoned by the very institutions that stand a chance of helping them.

The lack of access to education is similar to the inability to vote. In either case, the very systems designed to help people advance and better themselves, in society, are taken away, further establishing the separation and lack of social support at an institutional level. When we consider the additional element of racial disparity, the chasm widens even further. According to the University of Cincinnati, “The lifetime likelihood of going to a state or federal prison…is 28.5 percent for African Americans, 6.0 percent for Hispanics, and 4.4 percent for whites; among females, the comparable figures are, respectively, 3.6 percent, 1.5 percent, and 0.5 percent.”

This discrepancy calls for not only reform of the laws that determine which crimes are deserving of prison time—namely, nonviolent offenses like minor drug possession and petty theft—but also reform of policing tactics and a closer ‘policing of the police.’ Luckily , there happens to be a law up for public approval this month in California—it’s called the The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016—which incentivizes people in prison to complete rehabilitation and authorizes parole consideration for nonviolent offenders.

Recent incidents in Ferguson, Dallas, and elsewhere may have brought these issues into the national spotlight, but simply because more incidents have been documented via mobile phones and video streaming does not mean that these incidents weren’t occurring as frequently, before. Instead, the technology for capturing our daily lives is becoming ubiquitous. It’s encouraging, at least, that police departments such as the Boise PD have begun mandating the wearing of body cameras for police officers on duty. Once people are inmates, however, how can we help them return to the path of becoming a fully-participating member of society?

Camille Rankine might argue that we must begin by asking different questions. That is, since the system in power is primarily composed of white people, what can we do to examine what it means to be “white,” in the United States? Rankine is one of the 2016 recipients of the MacArthur “genius” award, and she plans to use the stipend to found the Racial Imaginary Institute which, according to a recent interview with The Guardian, will be a “space which allows us to show art, to curate dialogues, have readings, and talk about the ways in which the structure of white supremacy in American society influences our culture.” Upon her recent visit to a women’s prison in Ohio, for example, Rankine had this to say:

This prison is 80% white women and 19% black women. One percent other. But when I say to people 80% of the women in this prison are white rural women, they’re shocked. And they’re shocked because that information is kept from them. It’s kept from them because it doesn’t bolster the ideas that blackness equals criminality. It’s contrary to that. It doesn’t enforce the idea that white people should be afraid of black people and not afraid of each other.

In other words, we need to turn our eyes toward the people in power and ask questions of them, in order to be better equipped to implement change. One of the major potential vehicles for societal change is our public education system, which includes not only elementary and secondary but also college-level education. Economic inequities make it more difficult for low-income students to succeed in school simply because the schools they must attend are dependent upon funding from local property taxes, which is the reason why Brown Vs Board of Education originally took place. The NAACP’s recent opposition to public school funding being redirected and funneled into charter schools is reflective of this history.

Any effective combating of these societal regressions necessitates a revisiting of the importance of the public good. That is, there’s a reason why our society has historically funded institutions like public schools, libraries, fire departments, and the like: because there was value placed into the public good. School is supposed to be a microcosm of society. In addition to learning how to read, write, and think critically, we’re also called to learn about how best to participate in a civil society and voting democracy. Participation in our society means voting, interacting with our fellow citizens, and learning how to think critically in order to help contribute our voices to societal problems and issues that come up. Since one of these pressing issues is education, we can get involved via the voting booth or the classroom. Whether or not we feel called to teach, there are plenty of opportunities to involve ourselves in instructional leadership and school reform.

Carl Hermanns, for example, earned his teaching certificate in music and started an after-school community music center in San Diego before going on to become a principal and then earn a doctorate in education. At the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, he was interviewed as saying, “The research is clear that transformative leadership makes the difference… For so many children in our schools today, there is an opportunity gap, there is an expectation gap. But we have an opportunity right now…to provide our aspiring school leaders with the knowledge and skills to transform their schools in ways that support all kids in being successful.”

Oftentimes, however, we forget those students struggling to re-enter the educational system after years in the professional working world. In addition to working to ensure equal educational opportunities for younger students, we also must work to level the playing field for adults pursuing a college degree for the first time—including those students who have been recently released from prison or are soon to be released. The New York Times recently interviewed Juan Echevarria, a student at the City University of New York (CUNY), who is currently pursuing a degree in in culture and deviance studies but also spent fourteen years of his life as a young man behind bars. Part of what would help with the considerable student loan debt Echevarria is accruing is federal student grant reform, since formerly-incarcerated students generally aren’t eligible for Pell grants.

However, the Prison-to-College Pipeline re-entry program (in which Echevarria is enrolled) as well as the recently implemented “second-chance movement”—which eliminates questions about prospective students’ criminal histories from college applications and established the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program—are helping to make the idea of a ‘second chance’ truly feasible. Prison Education reports that “Prisoners who participate in educational programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison compared to those who don’t.”

That’s a pretty dramatic, tangible measurement of continuing education, and strong evidence of the benefits of additional reform, at the legislative level, of the laws that govern who is allowed to gain access to the institutions to which the general public generally is given access: education and economic opportunity, as well as the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If a former prisoner’s hands are proverbially tied, however, with regards to equal access to these resources, that promise of our founders falls short of its original, egalitarian ideals. Therefore, let’s each strive to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

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Image Source: Daniel Ramirez

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