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Education, Recidivism, and Prison Reform: Creating the Prison-to-School Pipeline

If you have yet to see it, 13th by Ava DuVernay is one of the most influential documentaries of this decade. This documentary sheds light on the powerful and never-ending structures of racism that are an ongoing reality in our country.

The title refers to a major caveat in the Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment, whereby “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” After formal slavery ended, the subjugation of African Americans was re-created through Jim Crow, the convict-lease system, and then mass imprisonment. Politicians in both dominant political parties throughout the twentieth century changed their agendas to accommodate the incarceration and stigmatization of people of color.

With the current bipartisan challenge to mass incarceration, we should be aware that reform efforts may disguise yet another face of mass social and economic inequality; from denied right to vote, to the denied access to financial student aid.

This important discussion prompted by DeVernay’s eye opening discussion of systemic racism opens with the realization that the United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of prisoners in the world are incarcerated in the United States. That is one in every four people in the world that are behind bars is on US soil. It’s astounding, and it’s obviously a problem. Over the past four decades — since politicians began “cracking down on crime” — our prison population has exploded.

Yet when looking at the numbers of individuals that are incarcerated and their individual sentences, a disturbing reality emerges. The majority of people in prison are people of color behind bars for nonviolent offenses (such as drug possession or distribution charges); issues that Ava DuVernay highlights in 13th should be treated by social workers, not police officers. These minor offenders are caught in a cycle of recidivism – the recurrence of arrest and imprisonment – and victims of a biased system that requires minimum sentencing and a mandatory three-strikes law (three felony strikes and you’re stuck in prison for life).

(Prison Policy Initiative)

Due to the severity of their sentences (despite the severity of the crime) many of these citizens are labeled as felons, and considered to be second-class citizens after release according to American law. They are barred from voting, from purchasing firearms, and pariahs in their own community; unable to get jobs or housing. The lack of support they receive, as well as lack of ability to acquire a steady income, nearly forces them to return to a life of petty crime or addiction. The cycle spirals on, and our system seems to be created solely to encourage the centrifugal force of our prison complex.

The Prison-to-School Pipeline

Currently, the prison problem is gaining notoriety among politicians on both sides, which has increased efforts to reverse the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.” President Obama became the first residing president to visit an active prison in July of 2015. In the last few years of his term, President Obama has focused a large portion of his efforts on prison reform.

In June of this year, news broke of a pilot program that Pres. Obama created known as “Second Chance Pell.” Currently, prisoners in Federal and State facilities are banned from receiving Pell Grants or financial aid for higher education due to the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (signed and supported by Bill Clinton). Considering the increasing price of education, denying grant access is particularly harmful to people who are already struggling with poverty and socio-economic issues.

Pres. Obama’s program, although currently only open to 12,000 prisoners that will be released within three years, is a meaningful move for reform. Instead of feeding into the prison-to-school pipeline, the Obama administration hopes to create a fluid school-to-prison pipeline for inmates.

Diversity in Education

Education could be the key to ending the cycle of recidivism. It is through higher education that many people are able to advance their career and increase their income. As Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, said in a speech with Los Diablos in August 2016: “The most significant issue limiting the nation is the inability to have equal educational attainment across all people…Low education keeps people in poverty. Educational achievement is the most predictive variable to social mobility. Without education, it is not likely that people will move up socioeconomically.”

Crow is one of the rare leaders in education who acknowledges the gap in diversity on his campus. As he is setting a precedent for other University leaders, Crow is providing ample opportunities for lower-economic students to get accepted to the school’s many prestigious programs. His model of opening education access to all qualifying students, regardless of income, was a revolutionary move from a research institution. If more schools followed the model that ASU has created, it would not only benefit disadvantaged students, but would benefit schools, technological innovation, and increase graduation rates.

Programs that give education access to prisoners, or provide instant access to a secure job after they’ve been paroled, have been shown to reduce recidivism for those candidates by over 40 percent in some cases. Bard College is one of those examples.

A student eyes the Emancipation Proclamation as the President gave students from William R. Harper High School in Chicago a tour of the Oval Office, June 5, 2013. (Pete Souza)

One teacher with the Bard Prison Initiative of Bard College, Yun Qin, noted that over 350 students with BPI have earned degrees, and less than 4 percent have returned to prison since their release. Compared to the recidivism rate in 2005-2010, when two-thirds of all released inmates were rearrested within a five-year time frame, the success of BPI shows that higher education could make a phenomenal difference in the lives of non-violent offenders.

A Universal Benefit

Formerly incarcerated people are not the only ones who will benefit from a more diverse student base. As Jay Halfond, professor at Boston University Metropolitan College, notes in his recent Huffington Post article, “Ideally, the learning experience exposes students to new ways of thinking, to an array of ideas and possibilities, and to meeting others outside their comfort zone…Universities take bold and controversial measures to construct a diverse milieu – by the ethnic, national, socio-economic mix of students they recruit. These college years are pivotal to what students study, whom they get to know, their professions, their outlook on the world, [and] it is too rich an opportunity to overlook. Our future success in overcoming differences, fragmentation, and conflict might very well depend on this.”

Within New York City, many colleges have already decided to “ban the box” that asks about a prospective student’s criminal record. President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, Jeremy Travis, wrote an op-ed praising the inclusion of released inmates into college courses. He notes: “Higher education should be open to all. But a larger principle is at stake: Public universities can play a critical role in the country’s emerging criminal justice reform movement…Providing high-quality educational opportunities will enhance public safety, improve employment prospects for those who return home, and reaffirm the human potential of our fellow citizens behind bars.”

According to a PBS report that covered the unprecedented growth of our prison system: “Black men under the age of 35 with no high school diploma are now more likely to be in jail than working in the labor market.” President Obama’s plan to allow incarcerated persons to pursue an education despite their current status could provide thousands of people of color behind bars with a chance to leave the prison industrial complex for good. Education requires money and provides opportunities, and opportunities provide money to survive in our society and contribute to its wellbeing.

The conversation has already started and developed a potentially policy-changing plan, and now we have to move into action and actively make a difference. Show support and compassion for prisoners that want to seek out better opportunities through higher education. Elect officials that reflect your values, and write to those in office letting them know where their constituents stand on these issues. Our prison industrial complex is devouring the lives of thousands every day, and we can do something to end the cycle.