America is a nation of multiple chances, but ex-felons — those no longer behind the tall walls and barbed wire — wear something of a scarlet letter, the ongoing stigma of having been caught on the wrong side of the law. That mark makes it difficult for ex-prisoners to rejoin society when they're done with their sentences, a challenge compounded by the fact that many of these convicts ended up in prison because they already had difficulty navigating society.
But you don't have to be soft on crime to be smart about time. To bridge the re-entry divide, and really help people who've served their sentences and are destined to rejoin society, prisoners need the tools to succeed. That's the only way the ex-prison population will be able to reintegrate and have a chance to survive on the outside.
Can in-prison education help? Dr. Renita Seabrook, who serves as an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Baltimore, has developed a program targeting women prisoners who face a variety of challenges that male prisoners don't. Seabrook targets "the totality of a woman" — not only the limits of the prisoner's education prior to incarceration, but a multitude of issues that women in prison faced on the outside — bad parenting, domestic abuse, alienation from children, and few skills that make them employable.
Ames Grawert of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program says that the criminal correction system itself often gets in the way of prisoners getting a chance to turn their lives around — whether it's having the ability to attain a signature on a form to transfer to a different facility or access to knowledge about changes in the law that impact their sentences and rights. Without the ability to manage their small prison world, how can prisoners be expected to know how to live once they're in the big world?
For those who would complain that giving prisoners an education is going too far — after all, they're already getting free housing and food, right? — the crass response would be to remind those complaining that most people incarcerated today are going to end up back on the other side of the prison confines, and without the skills to succeed, they end up repeating their mistakes. What's going to happen to them, or to those who are in their path when they veer off-course? It's not just about them. It's a public safety and morality question.
Another response is that everyone needs a place in society, and to write off prisoners is to say that some people are worthless. That's not how to create dignity in our culture or purpose for those who've gone in the wrong direction, and are in need of a second chance, something America prides itself on giving.