award-winning educator, mental health advocate, social entrepreneur, inspirational speaker, author/writer, program executive, and radio host
An ability to access a quality education is an important factor in the achievement of educational success and a benefit of being part of a civilized nation. It doesn’t require a scientific study to understand that individuals who don’t have access to quality educational options – or maximize their opportunities – can be negatively impacted throughout their lives by underemployment, income gaps, stress, depression, incarceration, and more.
In May 2014, Brookings Institute experts Melissa S. Kearney and Benjamin H. Harris released the Hamilton Project Policy Memo that included analysis about the impacts of the lack of educational achievement. Part of its focus was to determine if any relationship(s) existed between educational levels and incarceration rates. In this memo, ten economic facts were used to highlight crime and incarceration trends in the United States (U.S.).
Much of this information is jarring, but a couple of the points in the memo are very troubling:
* Fact 7 – There is nearly a 70 percent chance that an African American man without a high school diploma will be imprisoned by his mid-thirties;
* Fact 8 – Per capita expenditures on corrections more than tripled over the past thirty years.
The rest of this piece will first focus on the impact of black educational levels compared to projected future incarceration rates. Then, there will be consideration about the impact of improving educational opportunities for all inmates.
The first fact that a black man who doesn’t earn his high school diploma has a 70% chance of being imprisoned by his mid-thirties is dumbfounding. In Shara Tonn’s article Stanford Research Suggests Support for Incarceration Mirrors Whites’ Perception of Black Prison Populations published in the Stanford News (August 2014), she wrote, “Although African-Americans constitute only 12 percent of America’s population, they represent 40 percent of the nation’s prison inmates”. These statistics alone should cause many to ask probing questions about the reasons that this is true and the message it sends about a nation that allows such blatant disparities.
If education is a key component of future personal and economic success, then why isn’t more being done to help everyone achieve it? Is it the lack of caring, politics, educational system failures, systemic racism, or a combination of all of these things? Regardless of the reasons for these abysmal outcomes, these issues are humanitarian issues and societal failures; the good news is that systematic adjustments can be implemented to drive immediate and actionable changes.
The second fact that corrections expenses on a per capita basis have more than tripled over the past thirty years is disheartening. Have we as a nation decided that lives aren’t worth saving and the best option is to increase expenditures on housing, feeding, and storing U.S. citizens? Isn’t one of the goals of a civilized nation to create opportunities to ensure that everyone has a realistic probability to achieve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
What if funding was redirected from correctional spending to infrastructure to support innovative, developmental solutions for educational advancements? The positive impact on high school graduation rates and the negative impact on the number of incarcerations would be worthwhile improvements that can positively change lives. The other potential benefits of educational funding and development are increased income levels, better employment opportunities, and a better chance for an improved quality of life. By shifting funding to proactive and diversion programs instead of investing in detention and retention, greater possibilities exist for economic, societal, and personal benefits.
I’ve observed the negative impacts of incarceration (e.g., hopelessness, lack of motivation, feelings of rejection and dejection) through the aftermaths of family, friends, and inmates I’ve taught serving non-productive time. None of these individuals said to me “I’m better because of the experience”. Some might be thinking now… “It’s their own fault; jail isn’t supposed to be fun”. Even though both of these thoughts might be true, continually having punitive consequences without providing career pathways toward a better future isn’t a viable option either.
The biggest challenge with not providing inmates with meaningful educational options and opportunities is that money is spent primarily on maintaining the system versus providing educational nutrients. Furthermore, a considerable amount of an inmate’s time is spent in a suspended state waiting for release. The worst potential outcomes are that inmates without sufficient mental engagement will become hardened and/or learn methods to become more sophisticated criminals. As a result, the societal costs can well-exceed the three-fold increase in correctional expenditures over the last thirty years.
The inmates I’ve worked with want purposeful educational training. These inmates tell me that having a variety of programs is great; however, many want to have classes that lead to good employment opportunities after incarceration. One of the biggest life-altering changes and realizations that too many inmates with felony convictions experience after incarceration are significantly reduced chances for gainful employment. This type of career and life limiters are slowly changing as the result of initiatives like ‘ban the box’. Notwithstanding, a criminal record coupled with a felony conviction can translate into an ongoing punishment. If skill development, career training, or life skills management aren’t provided while inmates are incarcerated, what additional motivation will inmates have to live better lives after their release? There must be an availability of transitional educational and career opportunities to reduce the possibility of former inmates becoming habitual offenders.
In the programs offered to inmates through my non-profit organization “Saving Our Communities at Risk Through Educational Services (SOCARTES) – www.socartes.org”, inmates tell me that the training offered assists with their personal development by teaching them valuable lessons about life, business, and soft skills. Therefore, an ability to maximize the time these inmates spend on purposeful versus recreational activities will greatly increase the probability of their success after incarceration. The unfortunate reality is that too many inmates aren’t offered developmental, educational programs that will maximize their time to become better citizens instead of better criminals.
In my current program at the Arlington County Detention Facility in Arlington, VA, inmates told me:
* “It’s important to have positive avenues to use the time in a positive manner. Not only for teaching productive knowledge in a negative environment, but to also create a platform in which individuals can build a foundation that they can continue to build on once released. Otherwise jails will perpetuate criminology which old cons will teach new cons.” (J. Scorza);
* “It is vital for mental growth and stability, further advancement instead of being idle. I take all programs to further my knowledge and widen my brain so that I don’t limit myself”. (D. Messiha);
* “Occupies inmates’ time in a positive manner. The general concern of many of them is the re-entry process. Many look forward to classes that cover topics that can be used in the real world”. (M. Reyes).
Increasing spending on detention and retention isn’t the answer to the growing gaps in educational inequality that leads to increased incarcerations --- generally and for black men specifically. It’s beyond time that funding is used for proactive initiatives that focus on the reduction of the needlessly increasing rates of incarceration. Furthermore, minimal investments in diversion programs and community based organizations can have priceless effects, along with significant impacts that can reduce the school-to-prison pipeline. Moreover, focus on the cost to educate and not incarcerate is the best method to prevent the cycle of mass incarcerations that’s clearly not working. If meaningful change is wanted, then radical efforts are needed because the current, outdated solutions have proved to be highly ineffective, costly, and damaging to too many lives --- for inmates and society.
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