Education becomes the catch point of prison life – The Boston Globe | Team Cansler

Last week, Governor Charlie Baker commuted Shabazz’s life sentence to second-degree murder for first-degree murder, making him eligible for parole, provided the board of governors approve the commutation.

“Lord. Shabazz’s crime was appalling, but not only has he taken full responsibility for his actions, but he has dedicated his life in prison to bettering himself and serving as a mentor to others in prison,” Baker said in a statement. The transformation serves as a powerful motivation for an incarcerated person to improve, and Mr. Shabazz serves as a notable example of self-development for other incarcerated individuals.”

Indeed, the conversion provides powerful motivation for those who are genuinely committed to changing their lives in prison. But three serious obstacles stand in the way — the unwillingness of governors here to make greater use of their clemency powers, the fact that unlike some other states, Massachusetts does not have comprehensive age-based guidelines for inmate parole, and the lack of inmates -Prison programming which is a requirement for every inmate to get into this conversion/parole pipeline.

Shabazz is only Baker’s third recommended commutation and only the fourth in the state since 1997. Earlier this year, Baker proposed commutations for Thomas Koonce and William Allen, who each served about 30 years in prison. Both are now free and back in the community.

Other states — California is a prime example — have developed broader clemency policies that prioritize those convicted of crimes committed when they were 20 years old or younger and those aged 50 and older who have served 25 years or more.

The Massachusetts Bar Association’s Clemency Task Force, which released a report in 2021 calling grace “an underutilized tool” to address “systemic failures,” is expected to update its report and recommendations for Maura’s new administration Update Healey.

But without systemic reform of the clemency process itself, the one critical element without which no inmate stands a chance of parole or commutation is the opportunity to participate in the rehabilitation and education programs that men like Shabazz and Koonce and Allen had access to during their years behind bars.

Shabazz has attended 54 programs, including addiction treatment and anger management, and he also earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees through Boston University’s prison education program. His master’s thesis dealt with imprisoned Vietnam veterans.

Over the course of 50 years, Shabazz has used his time in a variety of ways. But for many in Department of Correction custody, the opportunities are far fewer than they should be.

As of Sept. 1, only about 15 percent of DOC inmates were enrolled in educational programs, while thousands remain on a waiting list, the DOC said in a letter in response to a freedom of information request from a prisoner’s rights advocate.

Of the then 5,431 people in DOC facilities, 843 were enrolled in educational programs, some with multiple enrollments in college courses, others in vocational programs. But another 3,170 people were on waiting lists for these programs.

Education programs — or lack thereof — are expected to be on a long list of lines of inquiry at a DOC oversight hearing scheduled for December by co-chairs of the Joint Judiciary Committee, State Representative Michael Day and State Senator Jamie Eldridge. The hearing will focus on implementation of the landmark Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018 — a law that included, among other things, a provision that DOC provide programs leading to a high school certificate of equivalency for those who did not have one.

For many inmates, educational programs are the be-all and end-all of prison life. They are essential to getting into the parole/parole pipeline which can ultimately lead to a way out of prison. But if these programs are so important, surely lawmakers – and the next government – must be asking why are they so scarce?


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.

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