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Help former prisoners learn: Giving the incarcerated access to higher education helps them recover their humanity

2019-08-25

Education frees the minds of those behind bars. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

This week, classes begin at Cornell University for some 20,000 students, including me. It’s my senior year. I’m probably not the type you expect to see at Cornell, a university that graduated the likes of the Notorious RBG and billionaire magnate Robert Smith; no, my pathway included a 17-year prison sentence, for my role in a shooting.

Yet I hope my presence here — and my future success in pursuing a law degree — sends a powerful message that former prisoners can not only contribute to society, but can do important things.

But to have that chance, they need access to higher education, access they have too long been denied.

In a blog post for The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Dr. Eugene Tobin recalled that a student of Cornell’s Prison Education Program once said, “Higher education gave me my humanity back.” Dr. Tobin heard that remark during a 2016 panel discussion at Five Points prison, where he was joined by staff from a network of college-in-prison programs. They all seemed eager to hear a panel of incarcerated students discuss the benefits of a liberal arts education.

I’m proud to say that I was one of those panelists, as was my brother, Darryl — spokespersons for what would become Five Points’ first cohort of college graduates.

With sentences of 17-½ years to life, when Darryl and I arrived at Five Points, there was hardly any guarantee we’d ever see beyond a milieu dominated by razor-wire fences and gun turrets.

But the Great Recession happened, and the need to make cuts to an oversized corrections budget sparked renewed interest in rehabilitation. New York’s parole laws were amended in 2011, and we eventually made parole. Today, I’m a proud father finishing my senior year up in Ithaca.

The Crime Bill, signed into law 25 years ago, ended Pell Grants for folks in prison, eventually drying up funding and causing many colleges to withdraw from prisons altogether. That was a terrible mistake. Today, federal lawmakers debate the language and scope of the Restoring Education and Learning Act — a measure that would give thousands of prisoners the chance to get some tuition help. They must think big.

But what about educating lifers? The Sentencing Project indicates that a number of senators are backing a version of the bill that would exclude anyone serving life without parole or who is serving a virtual life term. To these lawmakers, educating lifers isn’t cost-effective, as the benefits will not spill over into the broader economy.

This focus on the simple economic angle would be crushing for the more than 200,000 men and women sentenced to life or virtual life terms. It would declare them incorrigible, hinder self-development and jeopardize their chances of clemency or geriatric parole. It also ignores the reality that many lifers have a positive influence on those who will be released.

Darryl and I once were lifers. Had we not received a college education while in prison, our current path would not have been possible. We grew up in New York City’s projects, where the urgency to escape poverty and ubiquitous violence all but overshadowed the promise of an education.

College-in-prison didn’t simply make us more employable; it changed our mentality, and it changed our family. Despite studies suggesting a higher likelihood of incarceration for children with justice-involved parents, Darryl’s son is now attending college. He wasn’t yet born the year we entered Five Points but earned his high school diploma the year we were released.

During his childhood he often sat for hours in a prison visiting room listening to Darryl and I discuss a range of literature, from Chrétien de Troyes’s “Yvain” to W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Black Reconstruction.” We didn’t know it then, but we inspired him.

It’s these benefits, not simply data on recidivism and jobs, that should encourage Congress to restore Pell Grants for folks in prison, including lifers. When we recognize the capacity of others to learn, we recognize their right to hope — and, by extension, their right to life.

Epps is a senior at Cornell University.