By Anthony Gromko
While most of us agree that the current state of our prison system is deplorable, not enough of us understand how we might participate in effective solutions. The mandatory minimum sentencing for drug related offenses since the War on Drugs began has fueled the systemic injustice of mass incarceration. According to The Sentencing Project’s fact sheet on trends in incarceration, the number of incarcerated individuals in state and federal prisons in the US as of 2014 was over 1.5 million, a more than sevenfold increase since 1974. We have created a thriving industry that is a “system of racial and social control,” as Michelle Alexander puts it, and it’s diminishing our humanity. While there is no “silver bullet” solution to the complexity of this problem, there are a range of models that are effectively disrupting and impacting the system. If we could all find our own part to play in finding viable solutions, the cumulative effect could yield a transformation. One of these possible solutions happens to be the most fundamental, and deals with how we grow, stretch, and change.
In his 1947 student paper, “The Purpose of Education,” Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us, “Intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.”
I have facilitated educational programming within the state prison system in the Pacific Northwest over the past eight years, and it’s clear to me that there are many prisoners who are both extremely intelligent and full of character. The challenge, as Dr. King suggests, is to offer worthy objectives for their education. There are significant challenges unique to this population — the range of distractions and demands experienced by prisoners, in addition to limited nutrition and lack of sleep, can make concentration difficult.
However, if the will to change is there, then educational programming offers a way out — it offers an inmate who is ready to work hard the chance to break the cycle. According to Lois Davis, a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation, in a 2015 interview with NPR, “We looked at 30 years of research... and what we found was that, if an individual participates in any type of correctional education program — whether it be adult basic ed, GED preparation, college education or vocational training — they had a 13 percentage point reduction in their risk of being re-incarcerated.”
While broad educational programming and job skills training are effective, they often do not address the personal and cognitive factors an inmate needs to develop in order to successfully transition to the “real world” beyond the bars and walls. This is where entrepreneurship training can be effective. This type of training focuses on a person’s mindset and value systems, and offers them a strategy for approaching some of the greatest challenges they will face in their “new life.” It can help formerly incarcerated individuals think beyond knowledge acquisition and employment skills. The entrepreneurial propensity, as discussed by professors Robert Barbato, Robert Lussier, and Matthew Sonfield, can be measured as “a need for self-achievement, a preference for avoiding unnecessary risks, a desire for feedback on the results of one’s efforts, an aspiration for personal motivation, and a desire to think about and plan for the future.” Developing these characteristics produces a profound change and creates new pathways for re-imagining one’s future.
One of my students was able to develop an entrepreneurial mindset while incarcerated, and started to build resiliency well before she was released back into her community. Regina was incarcerated for ten years, and during that time became an expert in braille transcription through a vocational training program offered at the state prison. The program was her worthy objective that opened a new pathway and offered hope for achieving independence on the outside.
Once Regina finished her certifications, she joined my class, an entrepreneurship and small-business management skills course, and was determined to figure out how to start her own braille transcription business. She understood the what, braille transcription, but wanted to know the how: creating her own business model. After taking two iterations of the course, she had crafted a comprehensive business plan and was able to clearly articulate a vision for how she was going to achieve this. We said our goodbyes at graduation and held each other accountable for staying in touch.
Six months after that, she was released, and held up her end of the bargain.
I remember receiving her phone call then. Regina was on a bus, and I remember her saying how nervous she was about starting a business. She had no family or support network on the out- side, and this venture would be her only source of income. She was relying on her education and training during incarceration. A month or so later, I received the kind of voicemail you save for as long as you can: she told me that after years of learning and planning while incarcerated, she had finally established the Abundant Braille Center, and had landed her first contract from the Washington State School for the Blind. For me, it was a moment of appreciation for the resiliency of the human spirit, and the power of education and service. For her, it was a new life, and one in which she had created great purpose.