Letter from death row: Why we must educate our prisoners

Illustration by Iris Gottlieb

Writing is a way of seeing the world and communicating that experience with others. Whether it occurs in a letter to a loved one or an essay in a magazine, writing is an essential tool I use to connect with society and express my humanity. A love of reading and the benefit of a post-secondary education helped develop this critical skill, but more than anything it is my desire to understand and be understood by others.

After spending the last 19 of the 38 years of my life in prison I can attest to the value of a higher education and the unlikelihood of receiving one on death row. When I got here my education consisted of a GED forced on me as a 17-year-old in a youth reformatory. It wasn’t that I was incapable of learning, I was simply too irresponsible and immature. As a result, I never owned a car, had a license, rented any property or housing, or held down a job for longer than a few months. Minimum-wage labor is all I ever qualified for because I had no skills, training, or education.

Early in my incarceration I was granted a unique opportunity to enroll in privately-funded college correspondence courses. My friend and sponsor understood the significance of a higher education in prison and how it provides a pathway to reform. He wanted me, a messed-up kid who suddenly found himself on death row with nothing to live for, to access my potential. “You need to get something on your mind,” he said. “What would you say to enrolling in a few college courses?”

College? On death row? The idea was alien, but I knew he had a point. There needed to be something more than the poison of prison air—that lethal combination of hatred, bitterness, and ignorance that rots mind, body, and soul. It was a choice, really, one I was ill-equipped to handle on my own; so I agreed. That decision was crucial in shaping my present and future on death row, and in helping me to develop as a person. By 2013, I obtained an associate of arts degree with a social science emphasis from Ohio University. In 2014, I earned a paralegal certificate from the university’s Center for Legal Studies, self-published a memoir, and launched a blog. I made my time productive and valuable and invested in an uncertain future because I now understood exactly how important it is to seize opportunity and run with it. There are many in prison who are not so fortunate and it is for them that I advocate.

A 2011 report by the Pew Center for Research put the average national recidivism rate at over 40%. Roughly 276,000 of the 620,000 prisoners who annually reenter society will commit new crimes, violate parole and return to prison through the revolving door of a criminal justice system in desperate need of rehabilitation. If America’s incarceration binge is to end, purging the system of uneducated, unskilled, unprepared reentering citizens is the wrong way.

The usual stopgap remedies for recidivism—probation, parole, halfway houses, community outreach, job placement, post-release counseling, sponsorship—are only useful if applied consistently and in every case. Even then they are short-term fixes compared to what is really needed: an education. Recidivism must be pre-empted from within the penal system by providing a higher education to every prisoner.

It’s no secret correctional education programs were virtually eliminated by the Clinton administration’s 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA). This misguided law put an end to the Pell Grant and other financial aid for prisoners simply because a few politicians decided to use it as a platform for their tough-on-crime rhetoric. College programs in prison disappeared overnight while the recidivism rate jumped proportionately.

In 2015, U.S. Rep. Donna F. Edwards (MD) introduced a counter to this problem in the form of the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act. HR 2521 makes some state and federal prisoners eligible for Pell Grants—those nearing release, pretrial detainees, and juveniles. However, this is only a small step in the direction of rehabilitation.

It is readily apparent that the public wants little or nothing to do with funding programs in prison or investing in degree programs for people convicted of violent crimes. College is too often viewed as a privilege rather than a necessary tool for survival in an increasingly complex world. Non-incarcerated citizens who go into debt struggling to pay for college have a reason to resent anyone who received a free education, but they also need to understand there is no other way a prisoner could receive such valuable knowledge. The 1 percent and middle America do not populate prisons—they’re filled with the poorest, least educated citizens with the most need.

The belief that criminals deserve only punishment led to an incarcerated populace larger than the individual populations of sixteen states. The vast majority of these millions of Americans do not have a higher education, yet 95 percent will eventually earn release. If there is to be a lasting reduction in recidivism and public safety is to mean more than incapacitating offenders, educating and rehabilitating prisoners before they return to the community is essential. This is done by providing applicable job training and opportunities to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.

If no one wants to pay for this education, preferring to rely upon the prison industrial complex and warehouse mentality of politicians instead, what recourse do the imprisoned have? Several New York schools have developed a solution to the continued lack of public support in prison: privatization.

Twenty-two New York state prisons currently offer privatized degree-bearing programs as part of a prison-to-college pipeline program. Some of the participating schools are Cornell University, Bard College, and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The degree programs are currently limited to the liberal arts, but as community leaders recognize the importance and need to educated people who will reenter the community, more degrees will be made available. Prison Legal News reported in 2014 that though New York’s recidivism rate is around 40 percent, the rate of re-incarceration reduced to only 4 percent for prisoners who participated in Bard College’s post-secondary education program.

It is imperative that North Carolina follow suit. Since the VCCLEA was signed into law, there have been no state-sponsored degree programs in North Carolina’s prisons. There have been a handful of volunteer programs at various institutions, and the Vera Institute of Justice currently funds the Pathways Project (a reentry program focused on computer technology at a limited number of North Carolina prisons), but there’s nothing as extensive or inclusive as in New York. The time has come for that to change.

As I write this in Central Prison in Raleigh, there are four colleges within walking distance. Yet none of them have anything to do with us here, beyond the occasional tour group, despite the glaring need for education. There are also many technical schools and community colleges—Wake Tech provides a GED program for general population prisoners at Central Prison, but the administration has barred access to death row prisoners—as well as 38 sizeable colleges and universities that could offer a limited number of degrees and rehabilitative programs the prisons will not otherwise provide.

The cost to each school would be minor. Consider that Duke University enrolls over 15,000 undergraduate and graduate/professional students each year. If a single percent of the degrees granted were extended to qualifying prisoners as an undergraduate liberal arts grant geared toward investing in the community, a significant impact on recidivism could be achieved. If other private colleges were to also contribute 1 percent of their degrees granted each year, as many as several thousand post-secondary degrees could be earned by prisoners around North Carolina.

A major objection to establishing policy for privatized education in prison is one of investment. The donors who provide endowments to their alma maters may not agree to extending degree programs to prisoners because there is no immediate return on investment. This is understandable, but no longer enough. At some point people of means must be willing to facilitate change in the way people are incarcerated and invest in human potential. I am an example of how such support can transform a life that would have otherwise been squandered, if not for the willingness of a single sponsor. If the learning institutions that strengthen our societal fabric and the state and federal governments are unwilling to help educate prisoners, then that support must come from private institutions, non-profit organizations, and individuals.

There is no justifiable excuse for the continued waste of human potential in prison when a small amount of resources can be used to reduce recidivism and total incarceration rates around the state of North Carolina. If a mere 10 percent of NC prisoners who get out, commit new crimes because they lack an education, and return to prison were to gain a degree while incarcerated and never return, that’s an investment worth making. New York has the right idea. Now it’s time for North Carolina colleges and universities to step up and develop their own “prison-to-college pipeline.”

Lyle May is a writer and death row prisoner in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is published in the J Journal of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the Raleigh News & Observer, and on his blog Beyond Steel Doors. His self-published memoir is entitled Waiting for the Last Train.