Trayvon Martin's tragic death has rekindled pervasive concerns about race in the United States. It has stimulated discussion of disturbing social trends, including the profiling of black and Latino men and racial bias in law, policing and the courts.
As we search for answers, a federal judge has found New York City's "stop and frisk" practices are racially biased and violate the constitutional rights of the racial/ethnic minorities detained by these practices. John Jay College of Criminal Justice scholars have found that blacks and Latinos combined were stopped nine times more than whites under these polices ("Stop, Question & Frisk Practices in New York City: A Primer"). Furthermore, the ACLU's report, "The War on Marijuana in Black and White," found that despite similar rates of marijuana use, blacks are more than 3.5 times as likely as whites to be arrested. In addition, wrongful conviction and its disproportionate impact continue to define the lives of black and Latino young men in the criminal justice system. As constitutional violations, disproportional impacts and wrongful convictions become more and more apparent, it is hard not to question the injustices of our current legal system.
Yet, this is not new. We were reminded of this all-too-familiar disproportionate reality from an earlier, historic injustice from 1989 as portrayed in the story of the Central Park Five. This film — written, produced, and directed by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns — is a compelling chronicle of five innocent teens entrapped, tried, convicted and sentenced for the gang rape of a woman in New York City's Central Park, a brutal crime they did not commit.
In May, two of the filmmakers and two of the young men wrongfully convicted, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise, came to Baltimore to present the film not only to the public but to the men and women incarcerated at two Maryland prisons. What ensued was humbling and contradicts public perceptions of men and women who are incarcerated. People might think that women in prison would not be reflective about crime; yet, constructive curiosity and thought-provoking intelligence abounded after the screening. The women steered the discussion to their responsibility for their crimes. In the end, the women expressed deep compassion for Mr. Santana and Mr. Wise and examined how everybody's experiences connected to larger social patterns as well as the lives of their families and communities.
But how does this happen in a prison environment typically perceived as a place for hardened criminals? How can people who are incarcerated overcome the stigmatizations that they lack intellectual capacity, human compassion and personal integrity? Through what mechanisms can people incarcerated lead humane and critically examined lives? We argue that one important method is postsecondary education in prison.
The women who led such an engaged and thoughtful discussion about the Central Park Five are students enrolled at Goucher College through the Goucher Prison Education Partnership (GPEP). Postsecondary prison education shatters stereotypes about a dichotomy between right and wrong and instead reveals a struggle for knowledge, compassion, justice and goodness. In an era of mass incarceration and budget restrictions, prison education has the potential to mitigate their harmful effects. Education for incarcerated men and women is positive for everyone. Yet, such a reality falters without wide access to the criminal justice practices and institutions that recognize the need for education and empowerment of incarcerated people to kindle their intellect beyond the walls of confinement.
The need for all levels of education in prison is great. To deny or ignore this need is counterproductive. Education helps inmates grow, think and brace for the world post-incarceration, and ultimately reassures the public about their readiness to reenter society. Equally important, higher education in prison is cost-effective and supports safety in prison and back in the community when people return from prison.
When we encounter tragedies like Trayvon Martin's and cities taking on unconstitutional practices in attempts to make people feel safe, it is hard to know how to respond. Yet some things are absolutely clear. The failure to support post-secondary education in the prisons is nothing but tragic; it benefits everyone involved and has the possibility to transform lives, communities and institutions.
Natalie J. Sokoloff is professor emerita at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Ajima Olaghere is a PhD candidate in criminology, law and society at George Mason University. Blake Ethridge is a lecturer at the Johns Hopkins University. All three are board members of a nonprofit that supports the Goucher Prison Education Partnership.