Greetings to all my brothers and sisters on lock-down and on the outside fighting the struggle against oppression everywhere. This is from your hardcore revolutionary brotha in South Georgia. With great respect and love. I want to share this information with you in the hopes of you doing the same.
Education is better than incarceration!
Something we can all support!
I’ve learned in the hardest way possible that in the United $nakes of Amerikkka every felony conviction – no matter what the judge officially assigns in months or years – results, quite literally, in a life sentence. As a strong proponent of decarceration, I am encouraged by the efforts toward sentencing reform which will get some people out of prison sooner. But I am painfully aware that release from prison will present new challenges for those individuals whose futures have been made permanently fragile by their status as convicted criminals.
The lifetime consequences of a criminal conviction are evident in the diminished social status and in the devastation of poor communities and communities of blacks that have been hyper-policed, hyper-prosecuted and hyper-punished for decades.
Individuals from these communities are punished not only by virtue of the time they actually spend in prison, on probation, or in an alternative program, but because of the additional punishments that are inflicted for a lifetime. The consequences of a felony conviction include periods of voter disenfranchisement, travel restrictions, restricted access to public housing, restrictions of federal educational benefits, barriers to certifications and licensure of certain professions, and an irreversible stigma that permeates every aspect of life.
For those who spend time in prison, release is stressful even under the best of circumstances. People are released with a small stipend that barely covers the cost of living for a day or two. Without adequate assistance, many understandably fail to find meaningful employment, build healthy relationships and integrate successfully into a community. Having been released to a militaristic system of supervision that provides few services, imposes conditions that almost guarantee – and often expects – failure, many parolees end up right back in prison. I have been down that road, and I make no excuses. Those who do manage to successfully stay out remain stigmatized by the requirement that they continue to identify themselves on legal documents, job and school applications, and in numerous other places as a person who has a criminal conviction, no matter how long ago the original crime occurred.
These types of punitive responses to people who have made serious mistakes – but have already repaid their debts to society – do nothing to solve the problems. Like unemployment, which leads to crime, and hinders rather than promotes rehabilitation and successful integration into the community, it is difficult to understand why there would be any policy in place that would make it more difficult for people to come home from prison and do the right thing. I’m assuming the perspective of the mainstream in that doing the right thing means, at the very least, becoming self-supporting and living within the boundaries of the law. It has been argued that many of the barriers that are in place to restrict convicted people from certain jobs, from public housing, etc. are there to protect the public. However, the stronger arguments demonstrate that such barriers are purely punitive and that in being punitive to individuals we are actually causing further damage to society. Unsurprisingly, there is now strong evidence to show that by failing to provide convicted individuals with the tools needed to succeed once they leave the criminal justice system, growing incarceration has significantly increased poverty in the United $tates.
Among the most absurd punitive policies making it difficult to succeed after conviction are policies that restrict access to higher education. I say absurd because, at this point, even those on the most conservative side of the public dialogue about prison reform agree that “prisoners should be provided free education in order to reduce crime and recidivism.” This is a direct quote from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich during a meeting of Right on Crime in Washington, DC a few years ago.
At the same time that living-wage employment has required higher skill levels, education – particularly higher education – has increasingly become the most under-appreciated, underused and under-supported tool offered inside correctional facilities. This has happened despite the numerous studies proving that education is the most reliable predictor of reduced criminal recidivism. Educational attainment, besides being a worthy goal in itself, also increases one’s prospects for securing meaningful employment, enabling individuals to support themselves and their families. While country-wide 43.3% of formerly incarcerated individuals are likely to return to prison within three years of release, the likelihood drops to 5.6% for recipients of a bachelor’s degree.
Despite this data, the growing trend is to create post-conviction barriers for individuals who are attempting to apply to college. The Center for Community Alternatives found that nearly 60% of colleges and universities country-wide screen students for criminal records during the application process. In some cases, applicants are asked whether they’ve ever been arrested – even if the arrest did not lead to a conviction. Institutions that request this information often do so without appreciation for how a criminal record may or may not impact a particular student’s ability to successfully engage in the educational process.
For incarcerated individuals who desire to access higher learning opportunities, yet another barrier exists: they are ineligible for federal Pell Grants. Established by the late Senator Claiborne Pell, the grants allowed people – including those inside correctional facilities – who could not afford college to access post-secondary education. Incarcerated students were made ineligible for Pell Grants in 1994 under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a contradiction of Senator Pell’s legacy of helping ensure that everyone could attend college. After eligibility was removed, the number of higher education programs in prisons dropped from 350 to 8 country-wide.
For more than 40 years, the goal of the Pell Grant program has been to provide need-based assistance to students to promote access to higher education. Funding flows directly to the educational institution, and eligibility for aid has been based on student need and expected family contributions. Pell Grants are available to anyone who qualifies; thus, removing the barrier to eligibility for incarcerated persons does not diminish the opportunity of any other eligible students who are motivated to pursue higher education.
As an incarcerated Black man, my incarceration does not define me, but people with criminal convictions live among us daily. It is up to you to decide how best to create systems and policies that promote public safety. Making it difficult for people to access opportunities and contribute to society is contrary to that goal, and contrary to the economic health of this country. Help support policy change to eliminate the 1994 ban on Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated persons and re-establish the opportunity for otherwise eligible people in prison to obtain college financial aid through Pell Grants for post-secondary education programs.
Straight from the “belly of the beast” on lock-down at Wilcox State Prison. The struggle continues and I fight on. One of the hardest who has ever done it. Power to the people.
PTT of MIM(Prisons) responds: It should be clear, from the evidence this comrade cites, that the criminal injustice system is not interested in rehabilitation or helping prisoners succeed on the streets. The restrictions on Pell Grants demonstrates just the opposite: prisons are a tool of social control of certain (e.g. oppressed-nation) populations, which are disproportionately targeted for imprisonment.
Getting Pell Grants reinstated for people with convictions would help reduce recidivism, as shown in this article. And that would certainly be a good thing for the internal semi-colonies, which are disproportionately affected by the oppression that comes from split families and the many other traumas of imprisonment.
At the same time, college education, for people of any nation, is controlled by the U.$. government, and thus does not teach a liberatory education curriculum. There’s no degree you can earn in the United $tates, or any country, that’s going to teach you how to liberate the majority of the world’s people from the effects of capitalist imperialism. It simply is just not allowed to exist, and it definitely won’t be paid for by taxpayer dollars.
All self-betterment, including college education, has its positive effects. If our goal is to end oppression worldwide and forever, we need to also build our own independent institutions that can educate people in what matters for the planet. And we don’t need federal funding to do this. We can start by creating more study groups behind bars, including the mail-based study groups supported by MIM(Prisons). We can expand these educational institutions to include comrades on the streets and provide ongoing education for releasees. When we control these programs we can ensure they persist and aren’t at the whims of government funding.
Our own educational programs are no substitute for a college degree when it comes to an individual’s earnings. GED programs and college classes are important opportunities for releasees, which can increase their abilities to contribute to liberatory projects. We don’t have the resources to substitute for these institutions yet, and we can help our comrades use these educational opportunities. Therefore our work around prisoner education supports the re-instatement of Pell Grants, while building independent education programs for prisoners and releasees that are grounded in the needs of oppressed people worldwide.
Individual gain is not our end goal in any education project. We don’t win unless we all win.