By Christopher Zoukis
“I made a mistake when I was 17 years old, and I recognize that someone lost their life. I didn’t pull the trigger, but I was there. There’s no snapping my finger and getting them to come back. I know what death means.” That was a powerful statement Edward Sanders made during a recent lecture at the University of Michigan. Sanders was a passenger during a drive-by shooting. As an accessory to the crime, he was handed a life sentence for first-degree murder. Forty-two years later, a Supreme Court ruling gave him a second chance. Now, at 60, the former lifer has plenty to say about prison education behind bars – and what needs to change.
Although he was a teen and nearly a legal adult when he was sentenced, at the time, at 17 Sanders had the equivalent of a grade three education. Once behind bars, he decided to pursue higher education seriously.
However, it was not an easy path.
Inmates that were not serving life sentences were prioritized over lifers. To get into a class, Sanders had to wait and see if someone more qualified had dropped out or didn’t show up. When that happened, Sanders would swoop in and take the spot.
Despite the obstacles, Sanders worked hard at his education and eventually obtained a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science and an associate degree in paralegal studies.
Being a lifer, however, continued to haunt his career aspirations. Convicted felons seldom obtain viable law careers, even after parole. Once again, Sanders took a look at his options and chose the best path forward: working with his fellow inmates. After parole, however, his job search and qualifications earned him a spot at McDonald’s. He would later find work in an attorney’s office.
True to form, Sanders is not letting his time in prison or the limitations that come with being a paroled lifer slow him down. The paralegal is a strong advocate for prison education and draws attention to the barriers that hold inmates back.
For example, he feels a ban on typewriters and offline computers for research in prison are counterproductive. During his lecture at the University of Michigan, he said, “Even though it’s called corrections, there is a bias to keep you illiterate, to keep you at a remedial level, and it takes a village to get former inmates back into society.” He also supports Gov. Rick Snyder’s decision to ban a checkbox on job applications that would out former offenders as they apply for work.
Although it was a long and winding road filled with one frustration after another and one roadblock after another, Sanders was able to go from a third-grade education to obtaining two degrees. He used his training to become a “jailhouse lawyer,” helping his fellow inmates with their cases. Once released, his education enabled him re-integrate back into society. Not only is he contributing to society, but he also works hard to bring attention to the necessity of education behind bars. He is living proof that prison education works – even for lifers.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.