When the question of education after incarceration was raised on a national stage last fall, I never related to the view that puts a single individual under a microscope. To me, it was always a systemic question; one that happened to be using me as a guinea pig. As the salaciousness settles, the systemic question comes to the fore: Does contact with the criminal justice system assure a stunted education that, in turn, reinforces a caste system? A community event this Sunday, at First Grace Methodist Church in New Orleans, brings together people dealing this topic to share their knowledge and hear from others.
Andres Idarraga and myself shared books, stories, and inspiration while incarcerated together for years. Andres went on to receive degrees from Brown University and Yale Law School, while I recently enrolled in Tulane University Law School. While we were filling out college applications, Calvin Duncan was filing court documents for Angola State Penitentiary’s Death Row prisoners. He served for years as the Inmate Counsel for a group of men with a high rate of innocence. After having his own New Orleans conviction overturned, Calvin enrolled in Tulane’s School of Continuing Studies. Professor Richard Marksbury did not go to prison, yet in three decades of education, he has taught many who have been there. His scholarship on caste systems, race, and New Orleans provides a key framework for freeing our community from the cages we build.
In 2012, over 700,000 people will be released from prison in America and return to their communities; about 15,000 of them will be former state prisoners in Louisiana. Some will have family support, few will have jobs waiting, and all will be looking for an opportunity. What about educational opportunities? In New Orleans, over 10% of Black men are living in the community on probation or parole. They have no voting rights. An even larger percentage of Black men have formally completed their sentence, yet continue to suffer consequences such as employment and housing discrimination. Considering the criminalization of youth in New Orleans, where suspensions, arrests, and graduation rates can shock a casual observer, it is not enough to be able and willing to work. A vibrant economy needs a diversified labor force, with a wide range of specialization.
Ultimately, every judge, prosecutor, politician, and neighbor needs to ask: What would I prefer people to do upon return? There can be no one-size-fits-all job training program, and a sustainable model of reentry cannot be one of dependence. It is no easy task to Outside of Highly Policed Communities we hear a message of education creating development in economics and culture. That same message, with corresponding action, is the only way to break a cycle of poverty, underground economies, and violence.
The event is from 1:30-3pm at First Grace Methodist Church, 3401 Canal St. (corner of Jefferson Davis, along the trolley line), New Orleans. Refreshments provided, and families are welcome.