In this world, there are a plethora of worthy causes to fight for. People advocate for everything from climate change and renewable energy legislation to increased funding for cancer research; however, there are some causes that tend to go unnoticed or go ignored that have a blatant impact on society. One of these issues is particularly controversial, and many people do not know about it: educational access, especially educational access for incarcerated people or those at a high risk of being incarcerated.
"I had to stay motivated to prove to society that these are not just criminals; they are people who are capable of great things with education and some support."
- Michelle F.
I have always firmly believed that everyone deserves a right to a solid and functional education, even people who have broken the law or are incarcerated. I have seen first-hand the cycle of recidivism in my own family, as well as how a lack of education can lead to a life of crime. This issue concerned me, but it was not until I heard the story and met James Harvey Elliot, a community college student in Delaware when I realized there was something that could be done about this and that I should become more educated.
James was no ordinary community college student. He received his two-year degree shortly after being released from a seven-year prison sentence. He avoided the cycle of recidivism by becoming educated. He became such an advocate for prison education that he earned the prestigious All-USA scholarship for his work of passing legislation supporting prison education in Delaware. His speech about combating recidivism via education inspired me and thoroughly motivated me to become part of the change. I wanted to advocate for prison education programs and perhaps most importantly, create a program to help support incarcerated students pursuing college degrees in my own state at the community college level.
"This campaign was so successful that we by raised enough to support forty incarcerated individuals—far more than our original goal."
- Michelle F.
After hearing James speak, I got down to work. I first did research and found out the lack of educational access in incarcerated communities, as well as communities of people who are at risk for incarceration, was much larger than I thought. The average black man without a high school diploma has a higher chance of being incarcerated than finding a job. Even more shocking; nearly two-thirds of all prisoners in the United States are functionally illiterate. Additionally, once released, after five years, the average prisoner has nearly a 75 percent chance of becoming re-incarcerated, with some populations at higher rates than that. When prisoners receive education, even as little as vocational training, these rates can be cut in half, or even cut from 75 percent to five percent if they earn a bachelor’s degree while incarcerated or after being released.
This lack of educational access is plaguing society in various ways; yet, very few people I spoke with even knew it was an issue. Even worse, most people I encountered believed that this was not an important issue and that I should “waste my energy” somewhere else. Others were vehemently against this saying things similarly to “Prisoners don’t deserve support with MY tax dollars,” “oh well, they chose to break the law, so it is their fault and they don’t deserve an education,” or something along the lines of, “they deserve to rot in jail.”
As I was working with a team of students from other community colleges to do the statewide fundraiser to get this program off the ground, I began to get a bit discouraged and anxious. I knew the incarcerated population was deeply stigmatized, but even people who said they believed that all people should have a right to education could not see past what prisoners have done and believed they were undeserving. To them, these people, no matter how insignificant the crime they committed, were not human. I had to stay motivated to prove to society that these are not just criminals; they are people who are capable of great things with education and some support.
Despite the adversity I faced, I have absolutely no regrets about my decision to advocate for education for incarcerated people. If anything, my fight has made me more passionate about this topic and I will continue to advocate for better prison education, for the creation of prison education programs, and support the Second Chance Pell Program. My persistence was rewarded. My team and I successfully created a statewide fundraiser through the community colleges of New York State to support individuals at Marcy State Correctional Facility who are pursuing Associate Degrees. When we started last year, we intended to raise enough funding to aid nine people.
This campaign was so successful that we by raised enough to support forty incarcerated individuals—far more than our original goal. This fund will be undoubtedly life-changing to incarcerated people. Without education, statistics show that 30 out of 40 of these individuals will likely become re-incarcerated within five years of release. With the Associate Degree these 40 individuals will receive, only about six of the forty are statistically likely to return to prison. This program not only supports incarcerated individuals in their pursuits of an Associate Degree, but it gives them hope for a better life outside of prison. The students also have access to a greater network, a support system of individuals who see them as people beyond the crimes they have committed, access to better jobs, and even the ability to pursue higher degrees if they choose to do so.
Although this project will only immediately affect 40 individuals, it potentially will affect hundreds, if not thousands of others as this program is beneficial to the community. This program can keep the streets safer, save taxpayers money in incarceration costs, and give the families of the individuals a chance at a better life outside of the cycle. My larger hope is that someday society can see incarcerated people as real people—not just criminals. People who have ambitions, families, and personalities outside what was perhaps a one-time mistake. People who have the right to something that many people take for granted—a functional education.
- Michelle F.