Education is the best way to fight prison recidivism, but correctional departments are failing incarcerated people and society

prisoners non descript anonymous
Prisoners at Oak Glen Conservation Camp line up for work deployment under under the authority of Cal Fire, during which time they are called and treated as firefighters rather than inmates until they return to camp, on September 28, 2017 near Yucaipa, California.

  • Education is the most powerful tool in reducing the chances an incarcerated individual will recidivate upon release.
  • Washington Department of Corrections claims to work toward reducing recidivism.
  • The educational opportunities offered in Washington state prisons are sub-par and can be difficult to access for some.
  • Michael J. Moore is an author and playwright from Washington state.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

People who participate in educational programming while incarcerated are 43% less likely to return to prison, which makes education the undisputed king of recidivism-reducing tools. Yet here in the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) in Washington state, of the courses offered, very few have been known to create pathways to employment, and access to them can be elusive.

The Washington Department of Corrections’ literature claims that its mission is, “to improve public safety by positively changing lives.” Though an ambiguous statement, its context implies that the goal is to reduce crime by rehabilitating those they house before releasing them back into society. Considering 68% of people who get out of prison end up returning, the logical plan of action – assuming the Department of Corrections (DOC) remains true to its mission statement – would be to employ the most effective tool, and emphasize a model that not only makes valuable education available to the entire population, but incentivizes incarcerated individuals to enroll in classes.

Educational assets

Having developed a resume in freelance journalism, I recently decided to spend the last two years of a 12 year sentence earning a degree that would allow me to pursue journalism school upon release, so I inquired of the education department about my options. The response came within days, and I learned that MCC, in collaboration with Edmonds Community College, offers a 1-year certificate in Computer Information Systems and a two-year Associates of Technical Arts degree in Business Management (ATA). As technical courses, neither provide transferable credits.

Still, I asked my wife to research both degrees. Neither are listed as requirements for employment anywhere she could find. We had floated the idea of creating a publishing company somewhere down the line, so I requested a meeting with MCC’s Dean of education to ascertain whether or not the ATA might at least teach me skills that would be applicable to such a venture.

The Dean promptly scheduled an appointment with me, and when the day arrived, I filled a legal folder with my published novels, magazine and newspaper articles I’ve written, and a copy of my résumé. I felt that, in order to get a useful answer, it was important for her to understand that my plans were more than just the pipe dreams of someone whose perspective has been warped by years in prison. I prepared my questions in advance, and speed-walked to the education building to find it dark, locked up, and empty.

Upon returning to my living unit, I received a message that she had sent at the last minute, stating she would have to reschedule. Then, the next week, it happened again. And again, after that. This pattern continued for months, until I finally requested, she just move forward and enroll me in the ATA Business course. It seemed like a major life decision to have to make uninformed, but what choice did I have? She responded that she would get back to me because the class might be too full.

Over the course of a few more electronic exchanges, I asked how people on her waiting-list were being prioritized and reminded her of how long I had been actively seeking to be advised on a college pathway. She ended up eventually enrolling me, and agreed, again, to sit down with me in order to finally answer my questions. I start class next week (Spring Quarter) and have still not been able to get a meeting with anyone resembling an academic advisor, or anybody from MCC’s education department, for that matter.

These hurdles can be even more pronounced for others. Until recently, the Department of Corrections considered prisoners with immigration detainers to be a low priority, even for basic education classes which American prisoners are required to take. All courses in MCC were taught exclusively in English, and of little value to individuals being deported to certain countries upon release.

Prior to COVID-restrictions shutting down all educational programming, the Latino Development Organization, a prisoner-led nonprofit, was collaborating with the Mexican Government to implement a basic education program that offers a certificate recognized in Mexico and hosting an array of bilingual classes.

The University Beyond Bars, another prisoner-led program, provided accredited AA and BA degrees in Liberal Arts. Even then, waiting lists were long, and DOC staff, a demographic composed mostly of White Republicans – at least in Washington – created masses of red tape around organizing classes, and aggressively banned teachings that didn’t conform to conservative ideology.

The issues around educational access here in MCC may stem from complacency – the lack of incentive to create pathways to success and remove obstacles from in front of potential students, or they could be financially charged – the result of non-accredited courses somehow allowing more funding to funnel into certain accounts. Either way, they’re arguably the most important and pressing issues affecting Washington state prisons.

According to data posted on the Washington DOC’s website’s section on Offender Demographic Characteristics by Release and Recidivism, of the 22 prisoners released every day in the Evergreen state, 6 return. In order to remain true to its mission, DOC, it seems, is in dire need of an educational advisory board, consisting of members of the incarcerated community, and taxpayers alike, and centered around re-imaging its education department in prisons like MCC, which is failing. Until then, it will be clear that reducing recidivism isn’t high on their list of priorities.

Michael J. Moore is an author and playwright from Washington state.

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After months of torture and imprisonment, Hamas told a Palestinian activist that he would only be released if he divorced his wife

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Rami Aman, a Palestinian Gazan peace activist, holds note’s in which he recalled his ordeal, during an interview on the roof of his family house in Gaza City, Feb. 10, 2021.

  • Rami Aman was arrested for setting up a Zoom call between Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.
  • He received pressure from Hamas officials to divorce his wife – the daughter of a high-ranking official.
  • Aman eventually signed the divorce papers but remained in jail for two more months, AP reported.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Palestinian activist Rami Aman has said that he was forced by the militant group Hamas to divorce his then-wife in order to secure his release from a Gaza prison, according to the Associated Press.

Aman told the news agency that after months of pressure from Hamas officials, he eventually gave in to pressure and went ahead with the separation.

The demand that he divorce her is thought to be a move by the militant group to distant itself from Aman’s decision to engage in discourse with Israeli peace activists last year, AP reported.

His ex-wife is the daughter of a senior-ranking Hamas official, AP said.

She has since been deported from Gaza, against her will, and Aman told the news agency that he may never see her again.

Read more: People are being unjustly kept in prison because of bad software. It’s yet another reason mass incarceration should be a national outrage.

Aman was imprisoned following a backlash against him for helping set up a two-hour-long Zoom chat between Israelis and Palestinian peacemakers, Insider’s Anthony L. Fisher reported in April 2020.

He was one of over 200 people on both sides of the Israel-Gaza divide who participated in the English-language Zoom chat initiated by Aman’s organization – the Gaza Youth Committee.

Following a campaign on Facebook by a Palestinian journalist to shame those who attended and the subsequent social media outrage online, Aman was charged with the crime of “normalization” with Israel.

His former wife was also arrested, the Associated Press reported.

After Aman’s arrest on April 9, 2020, he said that he was interrogated and tortured. He claims he was blindfolded, taken to a prison cell, and was forced to sit in a tiny child’s chair for days or weeks on end, according to AP.

He was referred to by his prison number, only allowed to remove his blindfold for bathroom breaks, and could only leave his seat to be interrogated or pray, AP reported.

During his imprisonment, a police officer reportedly told him that it would be “better” if he proceeded with a divorce. He resisted the request for months, AP said.

In August, an Islamic judge asked him whether he felt coerced into separation. Aman said yes but the judge, the activist told AP, refuted this. “How are you being forced? Do you see me carrying a gun?” he says the legal official told him.

Aman, 39, eventually signed divorce documents, expecting to be released, but remained imprisoned for two more months.

“The deplorable treatment of Rami Aman by Hamas authorities reflects their systematic practice of punishing those whose speech threatens their orthodoxy,” Omar Shakir, Israel-Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, told AP.

His ex-wife, who has been deported to Egypt, confirmed to the Associated Press that she was forced into the divorce and wants to reunite with Aman.

Aman is now banned from leaving Gaza and security officials are still holding onto his laptop, computer, and phone, the news agency said.

He is in frequent communication with human rights organizations, lawyers, and Hamas officials, AP reported.

But his priority is to be reunited with his lover.

“Now I have my personal battle: return to my wife,” the activist told the news agency.

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In a rare show of solidarity, Republicans and Democrats are working together to pass sweeping criminal justice reform in Michigan as the state’s jail population grows

Michigan's Electors Meet
Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist opens a session at the state Capitol

  • Michigan lawmakers will have advanced more than two dozen criminal justice reform bills when they close the current session this week.
  • Governor Whitmer created a bipartisan commission in 2019 to look at jails across the state to better understand the problem. Much of the reform effort is modeled on its recommendations.
  • The overhaul aim to reduce the state’s jail population, which has tripled over the past 3 decades even as crime rates have fallen to a 50-year low. 
  • Supporters spanned grassroots racial justice organizations to Amway co-chairman Doug DeVos, the brother-in-law of education secretary Betsy DeVos and a major conservative force in Michigan.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

For years, Michigan courts have been taking away peoples’ drivers licenses for reasons that have nothing to do with their behavior behind the wheel.

Instead, suspending the right to drive has been used as a cudgel to get people to pay traffic tickets, court fines, or child support. But because people need to work in order to afford to pay these fees, thousands thousands of them have been driving on suspended licenses in order to get to work. And if they got caught, they wind up in jail. 

Today, driving on a suspended license is one of the leading reasons Michiganders wind up in jail, and the system often appears more designed to squeeze money out of the state’s poorest citizens rather than as a tool to ensure public safety. It’s part of the reason the state’s jail population has tripled over the past 30 years even as crime rates have fallen to a 50-year low.

No one knew how seriously out of whack the jail system had become until earlier this year, when a first-of-its-kind commission took a look at who was going to jail and why. And now, when Michigan has become emblematic of just how broken our political system has become – with right-wing terrorists plotting to kidnap the state’s Democratic governor and some Republicans working to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the state – lawmakers who are often at each others’ throats are determined to make big change before they adjourn for the year. By the time the state legislature wraps up this week, it will have advanced more than two dozen criminal justice reform bills.

“Right now, America is kind of at a reckoning,” said Pastor Kevin Harris, who served 14 years in prison for drug-related offenses and is now a community organizer who chairs the board of the group Michigan Liberation. “Even the most corrupt system has to recognize that we went overboard.” 

Detroit BLM
Detroit Activists March, Nov. 7th, 2020.

This session, Michigan lawmakers have already enacted legislation that automatically wipes people’s criminal records clean of most misdemeanors – and some felonies – after several years. It is the most progressive law of its kind in the US. They’ve also passed legislation that makes it easier for those with a criminal record to get an occupational license to work as a barber, roofer, or cosmetologist. 

This week, lawmakers are scrambling to pass a package of 20 more reform bills before their session ends, including one that will stop courts from suspending people’s licenses for reasons unrelated to their driving records. That alone could lift the risk of arrest from over the heads of hundreds of thousands – more than 350,000 people had their licenses suspended because they failed to appear in court for other reasons or because they had unpaid fees or fines in 2018 alone, according to a recent audit. That’s equal to around 1 in 20 drivers in the state.

House Judiciary Chair Graham Filler, a Republican from just north of Lansing whose website describes him as “pro-law enforcement” and “not politically correct,” coordinated the effort in the House. 

Even if lawmakers “start at different places, [we] end at the same place,” Filler told Insider. “Can we have a justice system that is proportional and fair and at the same time does not impact public safety?”

NOT A “PARTISAN ISSUE”

In a month where some Republican politicians attempted to overturn Biden’s election victory in the state, criminal justice is one of the only issues where both parties have been able to work together. The coalition that has advanced criminal justice reform in Michigan spanned the progressive ACLU to the right-wing, Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity. A similar alliance of strange bedfellows was also instrumental in passing national legislation signed by President Donald Trump in 2018, which overhauled mandatory minimum sentencing laws and made other changes to the federal prison system.

“We need to reject the idea that this is a partisan issue,” Democratic Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist, who co-chaired a bipartisan commission on criminal justice reform, said in an interview. 

Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist with Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, right, April 17, 2019.

In Michigan, supporters of this legislation spanned grassroots racial justice organizations to Amway co-chairman Doug DeVos, the brother-in-law of education secretary Betsy DeVos and a major conservative force in Michigan. The politics are good for both the right and left: Progressive ss can tout the reforms package as a win for racial justice, while conservatives can say they managed to shrink the reach of government and bring savings for tax-payers. The state jails cost Michigan’s counties around half a billion dollars each year, eating up around one-quarter of their public safety budgets.

The system “is not actually promoting public safety,” Gilchrist said. “It’s just disrupting people’s lives in dangerous ways.”

Donald Talley knows this cycle first hand. Talley, a 65-year-old who lives west of Detroit in the city of Inkster, first lost his license in 1985 because he had unpaid traffic tickets and child support. He was homeless at the time, earning some money here and there as a mechanic, so he had little choice but to keep driving. 

He was arrested repeatedly over the next 20 years as his fees continued to mount. The arrests became so predictable he even figured out how to use them to his advantage: getting put away in the winter meant he could have a warm place to sleep. Then, through a chance encounter at a soup kitchen, Talley connected with pro bono attorneys who helped him get his fees set aside. By that time, Talley said, he owed well over $180,000 in child support, traffic tickets, and other fees and fines.

Getting out from under the threat of arrest turned his life around, Talley said, and he hoped this legislation would do the same for thousands of others.

“Once you get a smell of victory, you can see the light as far as your life getting better,” Talley said. 

Whitmer jail task force
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, left, announces the creation of the bipartisan task force, April 17, 2019.

No one had really conducted a comprehensive study of who was in jail and why until February 2019, when Governor Whitmer created a bipartisan commission to look at jails across the state co-chaired by Lieutenant Governor Gilchrist and Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack. This week, lawmakers are working on a package of 20 bills modeled on the report recommendations, including the one that reins in drivers license suspensions. If passed, Chief Justice McCormack told Insider, “it would really make Michigan a national leader.”

The commission took aim at the state’s jails. On average, Michigan’s jails hold more than 16,000 people, usually for stays of less than one week. Jails are often described as the “front door” of the criminal justice system, since people go there to await trial or to serve short sentences. But far more people spend time in jails than go to prison – nationwide, seventeen times more people cycle through jails than prison.  Even a short stay in jail can mean lost jobs, lost custody of children, and fees that can prove hard to escape.

The commission’s work was supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which provided a team of technical advisors who have staffed lawmakers as they turned the panel’s recommendations into legislation.

“There are not [other] states, as far as we know, that have tried to understand statewide what’s driving jail populations and what’s contributing to jail growth. This is new and pretty exciting,” said Pew’s Terry Schuster. “With increasing partisanship, criminal justice issues remain one of the few areas where we see continued bipartisan consensus.”

A “KUMBAYA MOMENT”

It took a lot of work to get to this point, especially on the right, said Joe Haveman, a Republican from the Western Michigan city of Holland who tried to advance criminal justice reforms while serving as a state representative between 2009 and 2014. Haveman said his efforts to reform the state’s criminal justice system ran into “brick walls” from “old-school Republicans” during the administration of the Republican Governor Rick Snyder. 

But Michigan has strict term limits, sweeping in a younger crop of lawmakers who look at criminal justice reform through a more libertarian lens. And the opioid epidemic, which hit rural and white communities hard, have also changed attitudes about the role of law enforcement in Republican areas. 

“When I was growing up, I wouldn’t have known anybody who had a problem with the law – I think that was true for a lot of Americans,” Haveman said. “When the opioid epidemic exploded it became somebody we knew… It’s not just a ‘bad person’ – that stereotype that I may see on TV, somebody from a big city.”

Several lawmakers also credited the evangelical community for building support for criminal justice reform among Republicans. Judiciary Committee Chairman Filler said this was an issue of special importance to Speaker Lee Chatfield, son of an evangelical minister who was involved in a prison ministry. (Chatfield declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Lawmakers don’t plan to stop working on criminal justice reform after this session ends. The commission co-chaired by Gilchrist and McCormack made recommendations that the legislature did not act on this year, including provisions to divert people with mental illness away from jail. Lawmakers from rural areas also want to make it easier to wipe arrests for driving under the influence, a common offense outside major cities, from criminal records.

“You’ve had this left-and-right Kumbaya moment on criminal justice reform for the past couple years,” said David Guenthner with the conservative think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “The objective should be to use prison for those we are scared of, not those we are mad at. And when someone’s coming out of prison, they should have sufficient training and opportunity to earn a living and be a success.”

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