August 4, 2020

Prison is yet another place where education must be reformed

I heard her speak at a summit held by the Center For Advancing Opportunity this past April and it has kept me thinking about an invisible population, and a biblical maxim, every day since.

The population: people in prison. Remember them?

The biblical maxim: Matthew 25:36. I’ll circle back to that.

The speaker was Michelle Jones and her story couldn’t be more vexing or incredible.

Jones was convicted of murdering her 4-year-old son and given a 50 year sentence (later reduced to 20 years due to her committed effort to become a better human). In prison, Jones educated herself. Today she is a candidate for a doctorate degree at NYU.

She pays taxes. She is educated and she is giving back by educating others.

All of that tells me regardless of your crimes, you are never over. God makes no disposable people. Even if you are one of those seemingly unworthy souls whose sins are so bad that the best society can do is build cages to confine you, redemption is still possible.

But our dominant view of prisons and the people they hold is somewhat unforgiving. This might be changing, but slowly if so.

For decades we’ve supported a system that euthanizes the potential of the incarcerated, breaks their spirits, and, perhaps, returns them to society a lesser threat than they were before being sentenced.

That’s our retributive society in all it’s glory. Mean. Merciless. Expedient.

And, un-Christian.

Each time I revisit Matthew 25:36 I’m struck not only by its elegant mandate for us to care for each other, especially the downtrodden, but also by one of its points we fail to observe.

Jesus says “I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.

Providing the basics (food, drink, shelter, clothing, etc.) but that command to not forget about the people who are made forgettable by their prison sentences?

Those of us who see faith as our salvation and education as an equalizer can’t ignore stories like Jones’, stories that beg for our love of justice and our creativity for policy solutions. What is the future of education reform if it doesn’t continue to solve systemic problems where government has failed?

If we truly intend to address the “school-to-prison-pipeline” we will focus on more than the discipline policies that separate a statistically small population of students from formal schooling (and thus expediting their route to imprisonment). We will also focus on ending knowledge poverty – the want of fundamental decoding skills – wherever it exists.

Research tells us students who fail to read in the early grades are more likely to drop out of high school. Further, the likelihood that a person will be incarcerated balloons if they do not earn a high school diploma.

An astounding 41% of prison immates have less than a high school education, 85% of juveniles involved with the criminal justice system are functionally illiterate, and 60% of the nation’s inmates overall are illiterate.

Let’s call the reading crisis what it is, a school-to-prison express. The high-stakes of being knowledge poor is the difference between life or death, freedom or captivity, mainstreaming or marginalization.

If our most prized reforms fail to catch students before they’re lost to the prison system, then our reforms should catch up to them once they are there. We should support education for the incarcerated and innovate it to help far more people leave prison ready to succeed.

To that end, I’ll let another formerly incarcerated person drive the point home better than I can. Meet Aisha Elliot, a mother who was incarcerated at age 19.

Once in prison—New York State’s only maximum-security prison for women—I immediately thought about getting out. I knew from the beginning that I really wanted to go to school. After all, I finally had the time (running the streets doesn’t leave much time for education or parenting). I earned my GED in 1993, my Associate’s in 1999 and my Bachelor’s in Sociology in 2000. Alongside these academic courses…

All of this education was truly a game-changer for me. It not only gave me knowledge and skills, but also confidence in my own ability and potential. As a black woman from a poor, urban neighborhood, the value of hope and ambition cannot be underestimated. For the first time ever, I saw myself with promise and with a future. How ironic that had to happen from behind 30 foot walls and barbed wire fences.



Further Reading

***There is dispute about the meaning of Matthew 25:36, and scholars believe the common interpretation of it differs greatly from the theological interpretation. Did Jesus mean to generalize about the poor and disadvantaged when he talked about the “least of these,” or was he speaking more specifically about his disciples and followers.

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