It's time to expand educational access for incarcerated Americans — here's how
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More than 10,000 Americans will be released from prison this week—and every week thereafter throughout 2019, meaning hundreds of thousands of incarcerated men and women will rejoin their families this year. Unfortunately, there is a catch: more than two-thirds of them will return to prison within three years. That’s a real crisis, and it’s one with which we need to grapple in a serious way as a society.

There is good news, however. We have the power to change that story. Right now. It all starts with providing individuals with access to education during their incarceration, and that’s why we should all be encouraged by the Department of Education’s decision to expand the Second Chance Pell Grant program for incarcerated Americans. The decision is good news—but the reality is that Pell Grants and in-person programs are still limited. Tech solutions, however is cheap and easy to deploy. Trust me, I’d know—I studied with a program called Lantern using a JPay tablet while incarcerated, and it changed my life.

You see, when I was a young teenager, I lost my mother, and I was unable to cope with the pain. I dropped out of high school, turned to hard drugs, and eventually found myself locked up. This was the darkest period of my life.

But today, I am sober and living a life of which I am truly proud: I’m working in the Member’s Assistance Department at Christian Healthcare Ministries and a youth director at my local church. My faith in Jesus—which was my strength during my dark days—helped me realize that if I wanted to change my life, I needed to be that change. And that started by continuing the education I’d stopped years before.

That’s not always easy when you’re incarcerated, but I was lucky. I had noticed that several of my fellow inmates frequently used touch-screen tablets, and when I asked my site director what they were for, I was told that they offered GED prep courses and the opportunity to earn college credits through a program called Lantern. I was a student again the very next day.

I was released from prison in 2017 with a GED and several college credits to my name. As of early May, I’m a college graduate from Ashland University with an Associate of Arts degree in General Studies. 

So, while I applaud the expansion of the Second Chance Pell Grant system—it will give many more incarcerated people a chance to further their education—I understand the progress we still need to make. Consider that, right now, only 9 percent of incarcerated adults complete a certificate or associate degree despite the fact that pursuing higher education while in prison reduces the likelihood of returning by 43 percent.

That suggests that there is unmet demand and that meeting it will reduce incarceration and solve our enduring recidivism crisis. It also means that, even with new funding available, there is still significant work to be done. And not all of it needs to be done on the federal level, either.

Lantern—my program, offered by JPay—was available to me because Ohio decided to make it available. Elected leaders and key policymakers in states around the country need to welcome the tablet technology that powered my incarcerated education available to every incarcerated American. That’s how you give more people a real second chance—and you just never know what people will do with that second chance. After all, just look at me.

Hopkins was released from a correctional facility in 2017, and now advocates for education and technology as a means to ease reentry for incarcerated individuals.