Normalizing Opportunity Starts With Opportunities to Learn While Incarcerated
Normalizing Opportunity Starts With Opportunities to Learn While Incarcerated
Perhaps the best decision I ever made was writing a letter to the director of education at Maine State Prison asking for information on how to enroll in college courses. It was the spring of 2005 and I had just started my eighth year of incarceration when I wrote that letter. Up until that point the only way to take college courses was to pay with your own money, though the prison did have a program where they would pay for half the cost of one class per year from the Prisoner Benefit Fund. Little did I know that two amazing women, Doris Buffet, founder of the Sunshine Lady Foundation, and Deb Meehan, an employee at the University of Maine at Augusta and the Maine Department of Corrections (DOC), worked together to implement a postsecondary education program at the prison to be fully funded by the Sunshine Lady Foundation. The Sunshine Lady Foundation is an organization committed to “ensuring that people who are currently and formerly incarcerated have access to opportunities that affirm their dignity, humanity, and potential as life-long learners and active members of their communities.” I was lucky enough to be part of the first cohort of students sponsored by Buffet and her foundation; to say the program changed my life is an understatement.
Equitable Pathways Start From the Inside
I never thought of myself as a college student. In fact, my only intention was to take refresher courses to engage my brain more than I had been. After writing that letter, I was invited to the first meeting about the newly formed college program. I never would have thought that by walking through the door to that meeting, so many other doors would open for me over the coming years and provide so many opportunities people behind the walls rarely get.
I struggled immensely during my first semester of college and even thought about quitting. The first two classes I took in my first-ever college semester were biology and philosophy, and I failed my first biology exam miserably. It had been nearly a decade since I had finished high school. I found myself struggling with the workload and material in both courses, and thought that I might not be cut out for college. Fortunately, I had a support system that included the prison’s director of education, my professors, and my fellow peers, who encouraged me and helped me succeed.
Completing that first semester was a huge milestone for me and provided me with insight into the small community we were building within the larger prison community. Over time, that community has grown to include more students, professors, and outside organizations collaborating to ensure the men in the facility have access to education. This community atmosphere not only helps students thrive but also opens opportunities for students to pursue things that weren’t available in the past. Many current and prior participants in the college program are volunteering within the facility as mentors, peer program facilitators, and recovery coaches, and others are volunteering with community organizations trying to bridge the gap between the outside and inside communities.
Paying for Graduate Studies Is a Challenge
Residents also have the opportunity to pursue graduate education, and some of them have earned a master’s degree and are enrolled in doctoral programs. These opportunities lead to even greater ones. However, because graduate programs are not eligible for Pell Grants, students are responsible for securing their own funding for their programs, a significant challenge for students who are incarcerated.
I am one of these students. As a current graduate student taking classes remotely while pursuing a degree in youth development at Michigan State University, I learned early on that finding funding to pay for graduate school while incarcerated is very difficult. Prisons are not known for offering well-paying jobs for their residents. Many individuals are not paid at all for their jobs, while others may be paid just pennies per hour. The Maine DOC does better than most when it comes to paid opportunities for its residents. For example, I make $300 per month for what equates to a full-time job managing an in-house store that has been averaging over $25,000 per month in revenue. However, even if I save every penny I make over a year, I would still fall short of being able to afford to take two classes in my master’s program.
Most men and women in prison come from low-income backgrounds and can’t rely on their families to help fund their educations. Also, in my experience, many tuition funding sources have an aversion to offering scholarships to students who are incarcerated, no matter how qualified they may be.
At the graduate level, many colleges and universities operate on a “show and prove” method when it comes to funding—they want to see that students can do the work before they offer any sort of financial support. To address this need, I teamed up with some of the other men who had been accepted to graduate school and opened a dialogue with members of the prison and the DOC administration about the possibility of finding paid internships to help students pay tuition. After many discussions that took place over the course of 18 months, the administration gave us approval to pursue such opportunities, with the stipulation that all offers be fully vetted by the DOC.
Saving Money, Building Important Connections
This past summer, I successfully applied to and was offered a paid internship with JFF, working in their Center for Justice & Economic Advancement, whose mission is to “normalize opportunity” for people with criminal records by breaking down the barriers they face. I will make as much money this summer as I would in three and a half years in my job running the in-house store. The JFF internship has allowed me to put money toward my graduate tuition while also saving money for my eventual release. More than that, however, I have been able to apply my education and knowledge, learn and develop new skills, and build real-world connections that otherwise would not have been possible. I feel like I am a valued member of the team at JFF, and that is something that money can’t buy.
When employment opportunities are also offered to people who are incarcerated, the overall benefits are overwhelming. Over half of the incarcerated men and women in this country are parents of minor children. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most incarcerated parents want to be a meaningful part of their children’s lives, even if only monetarily. If parents can earn a living wage while incarcerated, they can provide meaningful support for their children and the people caring for them. Access to earned income is also important to people who are incarcerated because many leave prison deep in debt as a result of fines, court fees, restitution, etc. According to a 2021 article in The Guardian, the average person rejoins their community owing $13,607 in court fines and fees. Having access to quality jobs while incarcerated provides individuals with the resources necessary to pay that debt prior to their release, eliminating a significant barrier they would otherwise face upon reentry. The experience people gain from working quality jobs while incarcerated also prepares them to move into a workforce that may have evolved a great deal while they were serving their sentences. Through my work experience at JFF, I’ve gained knowledge and skills that I would have had no way of gaining through normal prison jobs.
If we take the ‘corrections’ part of the department of corrections seriously, then it only makes sense to provide educational opportunities for people in their care.
Education Leads to Economic Advancement
It’s because of my firsthand experience that I firmly believe that it must be a priority of every department of corrections—state and federal—to partner with local universities to develop postsecondary education programs for people who are incarcerated. If we take the “corrections” part of the term “department of corrections” seriously, then it only makes sense to provide educational opportunities for people in their care.
The simple fact is that education in prison exponentially lowers recidivism rates. According to the Maine DOC and the University of Maine at Augusta, those who have participated in higher education programs in Maine DOC facilities have a 5% recidivism rate upon their release. Compared to the national average recidivism rate of roughly 68% within the first three years after release, it’s clear how effective these programs can be.
However, lower recidivism rates shouldn’t be the sole reason for offering postsecondary education to people who are incarcerated. Low recidivism rates don’t equal economic success, and we shouldn’t be just OK with people leaving prison and simply not going back. People must leave prison prepared for quality jobs and ready to thrive in the communities to which they’re returning.
Education leads to more opportunities for people to achieve economic advancement upon their release and equates to higher-wage jobs, lower unemployment rates, more prosocial peers, and even better health outcomes. The restoration of Pell Grant eligibility for students who are incarcerated creates an incredible opportunity for universities to establish high-quality prison education programs. I’m so happy that the Pell Grant expansion will do for so many people what Doris Buffet’s generosity has done for me.
I also firmly believe that departments of corrections must partner with employers and training providers—large and small—to offer meaningful internships, fellowships, and employment opportunities to men and women who are incarcerated. Rather than simply looking on incarcerated individuals as sources of cheap labor, DOCs and their partners must be intentional about creating opportunities for these individuals that make the most of their education, skills, and abilities. Having such employment opportunities will not only help those who are incarcerated and their families; it will also help the facilities in which they are housed and the greater community as a whole.
People need to care, and they need to push their state and federal departments of corrections to implement prison education programs.
People Need to Care—And Push for Change
Most people don’t think or care about prisons, the people who reside in them, or what goes on in them. However, given that over 90% of people in prison have a release date and will return to their communities, people should care about such things.
People need to care, and they need to push their state and federal departments of corrections to implement prison education programs because of the inarguable value they add to the lives of currently and formerly incarcerated individuals, and for the communities to which they will return. People also need to push their state and federal DOCs to partner with employers to offer quality internships, fellowships, and jobs that pay a livable wage and are meaningful to incarcerated individuals so that they can learn valuable, marketable skills, support their families, and set themselves up for a successful reintegration.
Do we as a society want people to return to our communities prepared to thrive and be productive, or do we want people who have little or no education, carry substantial debt, possess few marketable skills, and are at a much higher risk of reoffending and returning to prison? I think the answer is clear.
Shaun Libby is a graduate student studying youth development at Michigan State University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in the science of mental health and human services from the University of Maine at Augusta. Shaun has worked throughout the majority of his 25-plus years of incarceration to better the community inside the Maine State Prison as well as those communities in society. He was hired as an intern at JFF’s Center for Justice & Economic Advancement for the summer of 2023.