This article is part of Community Strategies for Systemic Change, an ongoing series co-produced by Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and NPQ. In the series, urban and rural grassroots leaders from across the United States share how their communities develop and implement strategies—based on local places, cultures, and stories—to shift power and achieve systemic change.
It wasn’t until I was about halfway through serving a 10-year sentence for a crime I committed when I was 19 that I began taking college classes. In the prisons where I was previously incarcerated, access to higher education was restricted to people with shorter sentences – under five years – ostensibly because such people would be better able to take advantage of that education outside. I often say that I could have completed my doctorate by the time I was released if my approach had been different.
When I got out of prison in 2009, I applied to the University of New Orleans. I checked the box and asked if I had a conviction. I was denied admission despite having excellent grades and test results. A few years later I decided to do it differently: I filled out the application again, just like before, but this time I didn’t check the box. I was admitted, received scholarships, and eventually graduated with honors in clinical laboratory science from Louisiana State University Health Science Center New Orleans. I then became a medical technician with the plan to study medicine.
But that was me – one of the 600,000 released from prison each year in America. We know that many prospective students do not apply to college or university after encountering questions about an applicant’s criminal history. They assume that there is no hope, no way forward. And this is just one of countless obstacles preventing incarcerated and ex-incarcerated people from getting the education they need. Denying people in prison access to higher education because their sentences are too long, or denying them the financial assistance, technology, or internet needed to participate in educational activities—these are all part of the criminal justice landscape.
avoidance of relapse
We know that there is an inverse relationship between relapse and education. A Texas study found that while the system-wide recidivism rate was 43.3 percent, that rate dropped to 5.6 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree and was less than one percent for those with a master’s degree. The Center for Prison Education, which reports national figures, estimates that taking college courses while in prison reduces the likelihood of reoffending by 43 percent.
Around 2016, while studying for MCATs, I worked for the women I left behind by speaking publicly about my prison experiences and what needed to change. I started meeting women doing the same type of work and realized this was something I could do full time.
I decided medical school would have to wait. Instead, I became the founder and CEO of Operation Restoration, a Louisiana nonprofit dedicated to helping women and girls affected by incarceration. Today we have 20 employees supporting women and girls committed to justice. Eighty percent of our employees have previously been incarcerated or otherwise affected. All of our programs were developed by ex-prisoned women.
commitment to access to education
Everything we do at Operation Restoration is done against the backdrop of prison abolition, the goal that inspires our work. The US prison system was created by and for wealthy white men. Even before it became a primary apparatus to disenfranchise inmates, especially blacks, and to recruit labor, it was never designed to serve people of color, the poor, or women and girls. But alongside the overarching goal of abolition, fundamental changes – such as access to higher education – can take place within the system and are indeed inherent in the dismantling of the system.
A large part of our work consists of breaking down political barriers. Our organization—with the support of other formerly incarcerated women—authored the text and lobbied for Act 276, which Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law in 2017, making Louisiana the first state in the nation to “the box” college admissions prohibits . We helped remove the question from college applications in six other states, and we unchecked the joint application for higher education.
Incarcerated and ex-incarcerated individuals also lobbied to remove Question 23 on prior drug convictions from the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Drug convictions disproportionately affect people of color. As a result, many of the people most in need of financial help are left out.
Activism has led to other federal policy changes. In 1994, provisions of the so-called crime statute sponsored by President Bill Clinton included a clause ending the Pell Scholarships — federal financial assistance for students with extraordinary needs — for people in prison. Before this law was passed, about 772 schools nationwide offered college classes for inmates. By 1997, when the law went into effect, only eight remained. The Vera Institute reports that today about 375 schools offer college-in-prison programs, but only 35 percent of state prisons currently offer college courses. Thanks to the work of prison abolition organizers, Pell Scholarships have been restored to those eligible under the FAFSA Simplification Act for college-in-prison programs beginning in July 2023. Now programs may be restored and prison educational opportunities can return to pre-1994 levels.
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Meeting the unique educational needs of ex-prisoned women
Women and girls involved in the justice system find it even more difficult than men to access education inside and outside of prison. Women currently make up about 15 percent of incarcerated students, more than double their share of the US prison population. But only seven percent of the incarcerated students who earned transcripts in the 2020-21 academic year were women.
This is why programs tailored by formerly incarcerated women are so important – because we understand the barriers such women face in seeking education and what their real needs are upon release, from childcare to personal health and hygiene. Operation Restoration offers multiple educational approaches, ranging from a GED reentry program (which includes transportation, childcare, and snacks) to a college-in-prison program conducted in partnership with Tulane University’s School of Professional Advancement and dozens of People enrolls women each year in a lab assistant program at a local community college that places technicians in health-care jobs immediately after they are discharged.
change of narrative
I can say from experience that the US prison system is not always keen on people inside hearing positive reports about their chances of success! All you hear are stories of people relapsing and when you get back inside telling you how hard it is. Most women I know are very scared the day they are released and wonder if they will make it.
Because of this, we prioritize bringing positive stories back inside. I often visit prisons with my colleagues from Operation Restoration, who have been incarcerated themselves, to inspire women and show them that change is possible. I purposely met incarcerated women while wearing my gowns and they said, ‘Oh, you work in the hospital? I was told that I could never work in a hospital.” My answer is that they can certainly get a job in a hospital and if they want to be a doctor, we will work on that too.
Not only can education provide benefits such as fewer recidivisms, better employment opportunities, and better opportunities to support families and build wealth, but it can also have a powerful impact on how current and formerly incarcerated women view themselves and their children. This is part of the systemic change.
On the way to systemic change
The prison abolition movement is fueled by the intelligence, expertise and insight that people currently and formerly incarcerated bring to the table. In any other profession, experience is praised, but for those involved in the legal system, the experience was a stigma.
Trauma has led me and the majority of the two million people incarcerated in America to prison. But we are perfectly able and willing to work on these issues on a daily basis, and more and more people like me are pushing back on what society is telling us about ourselves and what’s possible in our lives.
Education is central to the long-term work to abolish prisons. When I was in my college-in-prison program, many people in my residential unit were protective of my education. They asked questions and wanted to be there and help. You were invested in me; We were a team. I realized that prison education changes the culture and environment of the prison and therefore can be a powerful tool for change. For this and other reasons, it was important to me that our college-in-prison program be open to people serving life sentences.
If long-term inmates are allowed to take college courses, imagine the impact on the future prison environment and how they might participate in the education of others. Think about what that means – having something to look forward to every day.
As with any widespread systemic injustice, it takes more than one strategy to reverse mass incarceration. When I started Operation Restoration, education was the cornerstone. I thought that all the problems of people involved in the judiciary would be solved if such people could get an education. But formerly incarcerated women and girls said, “Hey, listen: how can I go to school when I’m hungry or don’t have a safe place to live?”
That’s when I began to understand that every person has their own journey. It is our job to support them – with accommodation, work preparation and direct services. This is why Operation Restoration has so many programs and we must work to remove as many barriers as possible to ensure people can be successful. If our goal is abolition – a fundamental system change – then we have to work on all these parts at the same time in order to achieve it.