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It’s not just for them: Why prison education matters

This is adapted from episode 5 of the Lumina Foundation podcast, “Today’s Student / Tomorrow’s Talent.” To see more episodes, please go to the show's website.

America’s inequity is nowhere more visible than in the corrections system. People of color are arrested, indicted and sentenced more often and more harshly than white people. One in 10 black men in his 30s is in prison or jail, and one in three black men born in 2001 can expect to be incarcerated in his lifetime.

Then, upon release, people struggle mightily to succeed. Numerous policy barriers restrict access to employment and benefits, and the stigma attached to having a criminal record means that citizens continue to pay for their crimes long after they’re released.

How do we rectify this? That’s the subject of the fifth installment of our Lumina Foundation podcast, “Today’s Students/Tomorrow’s Talent.” In this edition, I talked to people who are working to redesign the system and support the millions of people affected by incarceration.

Two of my colleagues at Lumina—Chief strategy officer and senior vice president Danette Howard and strategy director Haley Glover—note that the most vulnerable people in society have access to the lowest-quality education options.

One of our goals at Lumina is to make sure everyone has access to the education they need to get on a path to employment and lead a thriving life. That’s why Lumina’s work includes postsecondary education both inside prison and during re-entry efforts.

“Approximately 650,000 people are released from state and federal prisons every single year,” Howard explained. “In order for them to have a chance at not going back to those prisons, they have to be gainfully employed and able to earn a living wage. And in order for that to happen, the need to have some sort of learning beyond high school.”

“If we are serious about our talent challenges, everybody needs a fighting chance,” Glover added. “Education is that fighting chance…. Ignoring this population (the millions affected by incarceration) is inequitable, it’s unfair, and it’s not smart.”

Some are working to level the playing field.

Syrita Steib-Martin, executive director of New Orleans-based Operation Restoration, which helps women and girls transition from prison to society through education, is working to remove the barriers that confront formerly incarcerated people and their families.

Steib-Martin said that after she was released from prison, she was rejected by the University of New Orleans because she had checked the box on her application acknowledging that she had been convicted of a felony. Operation Restoration has successfully worked to “ban the box” in Louisiana, Washington, and Maryland, she said, and is working in nine states and on the federal level to remove similar questions that stigmatize people with criminal records.

Michael Mendoza—policy director for the Los Angeles-based Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which advocates for former inmates and helps them find housing, educational opportunities and access to employment—knows firsthand the importance of education for someone who’s been in prison. At 15, Mendoza was charged as an adult and expected to spend the rest of his life in prison. After several years inside, he decided to take a college class, and “it really saved my life.”

“The more opportunities you provide to people while they’re serving their sentence, the more it gives them something to do—positive things,” he said. “If we truly believe in public safety, if we want to invest in human lives and protect lives and strengthen communities and families, then we want to invest in education.”

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Tracy Chen
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