Friday, February 21, 2014

When I Talk About Prison and Prison Education: It's Personal

Some of you may be wondering why I am defending a Prison Education initiative offered by a Governor whose other Education policies I despise. I can give you a detailed political explanation for my position, and ask you to read Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" but in truth, the reasons why this issue is so important to me are as much personal as political, rooted in a few powerful experiences I have had in my life

1. In 1969, I spent several days in the Brooklyn House of Detention as a result of an impromptu demonstration in a Brooklyn Coffee Shop and was placed on the detention floor there because I refused to shave my beard.
It was a sobering experience. I was a big, strong, athletic guy, but 90 percent of the people there looked like they could take me out without blinking an eye. When I asked my cellmate, a nice Puerto Rican man who had pictures of his three children on the shelf, what you had to do to get by he said " Mind your own business, but if anybody so much as touches you, try to kill them with your bare hands until the guard pulls you off." I kept that in mind for the entire time I was in, which was more peaceful than usual because the Mets were winning the pennant, but I can still taste the fear I felt. Anyone who thinks people in prison are being pampered and are getting a nice free ride at tax payers expense has never been in prison

2. One of my dearest friends and colleagues, Rev. Dr Mark Chapman has for the last 20 years taught graduate theology courses in Sing Sing Prison for a Master Program sponsored by the New York Theological Institute. I have had the opportunity to meet with some of his former students. Every single one of them has devoted their lives to helping people avoid the path they took and not a single one of them ended up going back to jail. Through Professor Chapman's work, I have seen the value first hand of what higher education can do for incarcerated people, and so have many of his students at Fordham who have met some of the people he worked with in his life changing course "The Black Prison Experience."

3. During the last five years, I have tried to help drug dealers recently released from prison, none with more than high school diplomas, find employment. All of these young men had children to support and I had no success whatsoever finding work for them. It was, and is heartbreaking to see them have to go back to selling drugs to get any income at all. Because of this, I think it is both humane and cost effective to give prisoners educational opportunities that will make them employable in the legal economy. And in this economy, higher education is the best path to do that

OK. I've said my piece. You don't have to agree with me, but at least you now now the reasons why I care so much about this issue.