Washington Must Atone for its Legacy of Mass Incarceration
In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden pledged to combat the sting of systemic racism, boldly promising that the “dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.” He took his first steps toward making good on that promise by signing a slew of executive orders focused on equity — including directing the U.S. Department of Justice to improve prison conditions.
But Biden brings to this mission a checkered history with race and criminal justice. As a senator, he sponsored the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, helping to further fuel an era of mass incarceration that disproportionately impacted the lives of black families across the country. I understand, first-hand, just how cruel that system can be. Two years after the 1994 Crime Bill was signed, I was sentenced to prison for life, with little hope for parole. I was 17.
Biden did not likely set out to imprison a generation of people like me. Indeed, he admitted last year he hasn’t “always gotten things right.” As president, Biden must work to atone for his role in Washington’s legacy of mass incarceration, foregrounding policies that will not only reduce our prison population but also set individuals already incarcerated up for success. Education is an essential part of this goal.
I would know. Education saved my life. Growing up, I was a smart kid who loved to read, but I was never a good student. I was too distracted by the crews beefing with one another outside my window, too anxious about the sounds of gunshots and squealing tires. By the time I was arrested, I had long stopped caring about school. In prison, however, education served as my guiding light. Over the next 16 years, I earned my high school diploma, graduated from vocational shops, and earned my associate’s degree. A judge agreed to my early release and I returned to society a changed person –– and with a blueprint for a successful life after prison. Too few are given the same opportunity.
Just over one-third of state prisons provide college-level courses, serving just six percent of incarcerated individuals in the United States, despite research overwhelmingly demonstrating the positive impact education can have on recidivism. Inmates who participate in educational programs are 43 percent less likely to return to prison. They have lower rates of unemployment and higher personal incomes. Prisons with college programs experience less violence.
Last month, Congress lifted its decades-long ban on providing federal student aid to inmates, rolling back a key component of the 1994 Crime Bill. But another, major roadblock remains: More than 40 percent of incarcerated individuals have not yet earned a high school diploma.
High school graduates earn, on average, more than $8,000 more each year than those who don’t complete high school. Many go on to college and dramatically increase their earnings. Any serious effort aimed at prison reform must focus on helping incarcerated individuals clear that first educational hurdle. The Biden administration should require all inmates to work toward earning a high school diploma or equivalency, no matter the sentence.
The administration should also create a national standard for allowing inmates to earn good time credit through education. In states like Indiana, prisoners already receive time off their sentences for completing approved education programs. For completing a basic literacy program, GED program, or technical education program, for example, inmates are awarded six months off their sentences. The federal government should look toward these kinds of state programs to craft clarifying guidance at the national level.
While providing prison education at such a scale may have been an immense challenge in the past, advances in technology leave little room for excuses today. Current conditions at most prisons are akin to a one-room schoolhouse, a setup that has only grown more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic. We can do better. Low-cost tablets, computers, and other tools can help prisons create hybrid learning experiences that marry the best of in-person teaching with the greater affordability and accessibility technology provides.
Unfortunately, too many prisons still rely on outdated and overpriced technology that only hinders educational attainment, including predatory tablet contracts that exploit inmates and their innocent friends and family. The Biden administration has a moral, economic, and social imperative to ensure prisons have the resources and guidance they need to remove these barriers.
We have come a long way from the environment that produced the 1994 Crime Bill. And so too have the kinds of tools necessary to ensure wide and meaningful access to high-quality prison education. If President Biden is to ever make amends with the communities he helped injure — if he is to ensure the promise of justice for all is no longer deferred — he must prioritize educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals.
Chris Wilson is a formerly incarcerated individual who has received national recognition for his book. He attributes his post-release success to an exceptional prison education and his development of what he calls “the master plan.”