Give the incarcerated a chance at an education
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I have heard it said that one cannot place a value on education, but when it comes to education versus incarceration, you actually can.

Taxpayers save five dollars on incarceration costs for every dollar invested in prison education, and incarcerated people who take educational courses in prison are 43 percent less likely to return.

As a teenager, I skipped class and was suspended often until I eventually dropped out during my sophomore year.

At 16 years old, I was not thinking about band camp or karate class; I was thinking about helping my mother who worked two jobs to support my three younger siblings and me. I sold drugs in my community like many of my friends in the same predicament.

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I received my GED on Rikers Island, reentered the streets no more reformed than when I had left them and was incarcerated at a maximum security prison for robbery charges shortly thereafter.

 

I fared better than others, but was hardly a model prisoner. I served a total of three years in solitary confinement for various infractions, including testing positive for marijuana.

But five years into what seemed to be an impossible sentence, I started attending 12-step meetings and enrolled in anger management classes taught by other inmates.

It opened my mind.

I completed classes on substance abuse and conflict resolution and started practicing self control and diplomacy. But it was completing a legal research course which compelled me to think critically about educational opportunity.

As a result of my good behavior, I was transferred to medium security Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility. I took correspondence general ed courses through Ohio University with old textbooks and no internet. I studied consumer mathematics and learned basics most people take for granted like what APR means and how to build credit. 

The concept of a bank account had been completely foreign to me.

I studied English poetry and harnessed the power of self-expression; I stopped using profanity. I studied history and learned about World War II and the Holocaust. I studied statistics and social work and discovered what I wanted to do with my life. I had a 4.0 GPA.

Today, I help others leaving prison reenter society.

I help people who have spent years in solitary confinement find an apartment. I help trauma survivors find mental health care. I help people navigate society and the system so that they never again have to apply criminal solutions to their problems. I help people.

This January I will be graduating from St. Francis College of Brooklyn with a degree in criminal justice.

In 1994, prisoners lost access to Pell grants they’d had since the program’s inception in the 1970s. That year, they accounted for less than one percent of all recipients and only 0.6 percent of total Pell Grant dollars.

President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWe must eliminate nuclear weapons, but a 'No First Use' Policy is not the answer Building back a better vice presidency Jill Biden unveils traditional White House holiday décor MORE’s administration worked to improve prison education opportunities by reinstating Pell Grant access to prisoners and hiring Texas prison educator Amy Lopez to overhaul U.S. prison schools as the system’s superintendent.

Last month Lopez was fired. President Trump plans to restore pell grant eligibility for thousands, but it is doubtful any of those will be prisoners. Attorney General Sessions intends to reinstate mandatory minimums and prosecute nonviolent drug crimes to the fullest extent of the law. Momentum for stinting mass incarceration is being reversed. The Trump administration shows little or interest in investing in the lives of the 2.1 million people locked behind our nation's prisons

But we can be rehabilitated when we have the opportunity. I was. My first professor in prison, Richard Shirey from Siena College, always applauded us for owning our actions. But he also insisted we understand that, while we’d made bad choices, we’d also had limited options.

I often think about what I would be doing now if not for Shirey's macro economics class. Would I be dining with my daughter or fighting in a prison cafeteria? Would I be helping someone get their first job or talking to myself in solitary confinement. Would I be sleeping in a bed or on the streets?

As high school and college graduations are well underway, students rightfully take pride in what they have earned and, for many, what they have overcome. Soon I will know this joy. I will have worked hard for it, too.

All I needed was a chance. There are so many people just like me who are waiting for their chance. For their sake — and the sake of our communities — let’s invest in education rather than continuing to pour money into incarceration.

Johnny Perez is a prisoner reentry advocate with the Urban Justice Center. He was formerly incarcerated for 12 years, including three in solitary confinement.


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