by Dortell Williams
As a nation we‘ve come to value education, even harping on it with popular refrains such as: “education is the path to success, ” and “knowledge is power. ” Our confidence in education is so potent that we dare to vaunt it as one of the few real panaceas to America’s persistent plague of otherwise indomitable poverty.
Yet in the oddest of paradoxes we flatly deny education to those among us who need it most — prisoners. Indeed, it’s no secret that the vast majority of prisoners are undereducated, if not completely illiterate.
Most come from politically and financially neglected neighborhoods that host schools in deplorable conditions. It is here that many prisoners derive, with dropout rates as high as fifty-percent. And when they inevitably wind up in prison we continue to deprive this most basic right.
This fact alone indisputably exacerbates the nation’s intolerable recidivism rates; which spell nothing but failure across the board for prisoners and a victim-ridden society.
California, arguably the most failed penal system in the nation, under federal court monitoring in almost every facet of its operations, has the highest return-to-prison rate in the country — 69 percent.
Having recognized the value of education as a prisoner early on, I began the process of educating myself by whatever means I could muster. With the sponsorship of friends I earned a paralegal certificate. Apart from graduating from high school, the paralegal certificate was my first major accomplishment in academics.
My self-confidence and personal view of myself soared. I then tackled Spanish with a dictionary and television. As a porter for the administration, I practiced typing on the clerks’ machines every time they stepped out. Eventually I learned to write professionally, among other skills, and have been published in various periodicals across the land. I’ll never feel the need to sell drugs again.
But the walls of prison have arbitrarily extended themselves above, creating a concrete ceiling that limits my ability to continue growing and rehabilitating myself.
The last brick of this ceiling was mortared solid in 1994 when President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Yet the construction of the ceiling started even before Clinton was elected president.
In 1982 Virginia Congressman William Whitehurst introduced legislation to significantly curtail Pell Grants to prisoners. Ten years later senators and representatives of both parties routinely submitted legislation to exclude federal prisoners from Pell Grants until their mission was completed.