I am upset by an incumbent’s ads and citizens’ letters decrying the ill-fated proposal to provide college courses to incarcerated individuals. I worked with the late Sister Karen Klimczak in Prison Ministry. As I interacted with the formerly incarcerated men housed at the facility Sister Karen founded, ran and named HOPE House, I learned a great deal. The men were from every ethnic group.
Those ads I hear smack of an “us” versus “them” mentality that subtly borders on racism. The implication subscribes to the myth that crime is an inner-city problem because of the minority population. After all, minorities populate prisons in percentages above out-of-prison inhabitants. Crime has no ethnic component. It is too often a consequence of lack of options or perceived lack of options.
I saw HOPE House residents’ eagerness to contribute to society. They volunteered at a local teen center, mowed lawns for people in the neighborhood, shoveled snow for elderly people living nearby and held jobs. We worked together on several of Sister Karen’s projects and fundraisers. The men surprised and inspired me by their energy and dedication.
Sister Karen invited confirmation and youth groups to the house to hear the men speak. The young people listened attentively as the residents cautioned their audiences to choose their actions wisely and avoid mistakes they themselves had made.
One suburban mother who accompanied her son’s group said, “Any of these men could be the boy next door.” She recognized that crime and those who commit it know no city boundaries or socioeconomic status. It is not limited to one place. Lawyers, accountants, school teachers, bookkeepers, even police officers have broken the law. And law breakers reflect our society’s ethnic groups.
Providing education to those incarcerated becomes a smart investment. Eddie Ellis earned four college and graduate degrees while behind bars and now works to improve conditions in communities as president of the Center for NuLeadership. He says taking courses changes an inmate’s life. “Education is the key.”
I saw this for myself. One man who lived at HOPE House had earned a degree in counseling while in prison. He was soft-spoken and gentle and secured a well-paying job after leaving Sister Karen’s facility. Sister enjoyed referring to him as one of the success stories.
Sixty percent of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in 2010 were not white. A 2011 Duke University study found that black teens are less likely to become addicted to drugs than their white counterparts. Yet statistics show black teens are arrested for drug infractions at 10 times the rate of whites.
Investing in education for those incarcerated becomes an investment in communities. Formerly incarcerated individuals with skills are better able to secure good-paying jobs and become taxpayers. Currently, few re-entry programs like Sister Karen’s are available. Successful ones must be tailored to individual communities.
With few places to aid the newly released with re-entry into society, they often fail. Within a year of release, one-third will be imprisoned again; within three years, two-thirds. Education can help avoid costly recidivism rates to both individuals and their communities. We need to see those who have committed crimes in new ways and recognize that all of us have a stake in their re-entry success because they are a part of us.