Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, is quoted as saying, “Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.” Congress continues to discuss the possibility of passing the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, which would provide access to Pell Grants for incarcerated students, as a part of the Higher Education Act.
Education improves the lives of people who are incarcerated by reducing the recidivism rate among returning citizens, providing them with social capital and increasing employment opportunities when they return to their communities.
Some lawmakers have suggested excluding people who are serving life sentences from the REAL Act. But educational opportunities provide a more positive and safer environment for all people behind bars, including the staff. Excluding people with life sentences from such opportunities could create tensions between those who have access to an education and those who do not, fostering an unstable environment for all behind bars.
Rahsaan Thomas, an author who is serving a 55 year to life sentence, writes about how providing educational opportunities to people with life sentences establishes a positive mentorship network between “lifers” and those who have shorter sentences. These mentor/mentee relationships lead to more young men taking advantage of the educational opportunities provided for them. Fundamentally, providing an education to individuals with life sentences is an issue of dignity, as offering educational opportunities provides worth within a setting that normalizes shame.
Jesus describes the righteous as those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison and give a drink to the thirsty (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus is naming groups of people who were easily forgotten in His time and still are today. We have been called to not forget those who are in prison. Advocating for educational opportunities for all in prison, no matter their sentence length, is a part of Christ’s call to the righteous to not forget those in prison.
In the weeks to come Congress will continue discussing reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. It is important that members of Congress hear our voices. Please consider speaking out in support of “lifers” being a part of the REAL Act.
John-Michael Cotignola-Pickens is the Criminal Justice Education & Advocacy Coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Story originally published on November 8, 2019. Reprinted with permission from Third Way Cafe.
Photo: (A sign from when) MCC East Coast staff, volunteers and community members celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by exploring the topic of mass incarceration in the U.S., hearing from a panel of formerly-incarcerated individuals including community leaders, and assembling basic hygiene items into care kits for those in prison. MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas