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Educating prisoners gives them — and their communities — a shot at a better future

Over the years, I have been blessed to spend time in thousands of classrooms across the country — including those in prisons and juvenile detention centers. Some of my most inspiring conversations have occurred in those rooms.

In these profoundly moving discussions, I have been struck by how easily my life could have taken a different path if I hadn’t been given a second chance. I am also confronted by the reality that many of those who are incarcerated never really had a first chance. And each time, I am powerfully reminded of the difference education — and educators — can make in people’s lives.

I believe I am the first United States Secretary of Education to have been kicked out of high school. If not for caring adults who intervened at critical moments, I could have ended up in prison or dead.

During my childhood when I lost my parents to illness, a series of outstanding New York City public school teachers invested in me and made school a place of emotional safety and academic engagement. They gave me a sense of hope.

As a teenager, though, I was, like many youth — especially young men of color who have experienced trauma at an early age — deeply angry and lost.

I channeled my sadness and loss into resistance to adult authority. I made many mistakes, and when I got kicked out of high school, it could have been easy for educators and others to give up on me. They could have dismissed me as a troubled African-American and Latino male with a family in crisis who was constantly getting in trouble in school.

Instead, family members and educators intervened and got me on the path to college and a career as an educator. They chose to give me a second chance — to see promise in me that I could not see in myself.

While that second chance changed my life trajectory, the unfortunate reality is that many of the more than 2 million Americans who are incarcerated in local, state and federal prisons never had a real chance in the first place.

A disproportionate share of people in prison suffer with mental illness, and a significant percentage are struggling with substance abuse — often related to childhood trauma. Only about half of adults in prison have a high school diploma or more advanced education. In today’s economy, how many jobs paying a livable wage are available to people with less than a high school diploma?

For many people in prison, incarceration is an all-too-predictable result of attending public schools in high needs communities where students consistently receive less: less access to effective teachers, less access to a well-rounded curriculum, less access to school counselors and less investment of resources.

Consider the ways the school-to-prison pipeline is fed by disparate school discipline practices for students of color. Theses disparities begin as early as pre-kindergarten, with African-American 4-year-olds more than three times as likely to be suspended in preschool as white students. Students’ individual agency of course matters, but, as a nation, we cannot deny that systemic biases and barriers disproportionately impact the life chances of young people of color in particular.

In my conversations with incarcerated individuals, a common thread is that access to adult education offers them a chance to process their past and envision a new future. On a recent visit to Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York, I met with students and alumni of a long-standing prison higher education program.

One student noted his college classes in prison were the first time in his life that he had felt taken seriously, intellectually, by his teachers.

Another student described how studying psychology had allowed him to finally admit to himself both the trauma he had experienced as a child and the harm he had done to others. He explained how although he knew he could not undo the crime he committed, love and service would define the rest of his life.

An alum explained that taking college classes had allowed him to speak to his family with “academic and moral credibility” and that he felt better prepared to guide his children to make better choices than he had made.

Education in prison was not just about equipping these students with skills that could help them find better jobs upon returning to their communities. Education was about something more profound: transforming how they saw themselves, their relationships with their families and their vision for what life could be.

According to a 2013 study, incarcerated individuals who participated in high-quality correctional education — including postsecondary correctional education — were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than those who didn't participate in correctional education. In programs where students have earned degrees, such as the Bard College prison education program, recidivism can be as low as 2 percent.

Given that more than 95 percent of those who are incarcerated eventually return to society, and nearly 700,000 people leave federal and state prisons each year, it’s in everyone’s best interest to support the transition of these individuals to meaningful employment and productive lives. That’s why, across the country, we need greater investment in prison education, especially postsecondary educational opportunities.

Prison education changes not only the course of individual lives but also the future of communities and the country through the contributions of returning citizens. We can, and should, make this investment in our people and our overall prosperity.

John B. King Jr. is former U.S. Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration and president and CEO of The Education Trust. His quarterly guest column will run every other Sunday through mid January. His email is John.King@edtrust.org; Twitter: @JohnBKing.

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