Why we offer second chances to inmates

James Elliott (center), a former inmate who now is the international president of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, spoke at the commencement for inmates graduating a program offered by Wor-Wic Community College. (Photos: PTK)

Editor’s note: This article comes from the blog of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society (PTK). It is reprinted with permission.

“I’ve also made that big step in my life through education. Immersing myself down this avenue has been the catalyst in my recovery and life transformation. The power of education has given me great insight to better understand myself and the world around me. It has expanded my horizon and perspective, seeing the world with infinite possibilities. Finally, it has revolutionized my mind, reawakening my intellectual abilities I have neglected and used for the wrong reasons. In my opinion, it has redeemed me and made me a better person.”

These words were written in perfect cursive in a letter to me from Efraim Morales, who is incarcerated in California. I received this letter from Efraim during my last visit to Phi Theta Kappa headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi. The hair on my arms and neck stood up.

Efraim’s words illustrate the transformative power of education. His words are not just spoken for himself, but for the many men and women across the country pursuing higher learning behind bars. For many of us who have had the opportunity to take distance learning classes while incarcerated, our experience is as he describes it: “…the catalyst in my recovery and life transformation.”

Like Efraim, I too experienced this life-changing opportunity while incarcerated. Efraim and I are living proof that change is possible and second chances must be given.

Skyrocketing recidivism rates

In 1994, Pell grants for incarcerated men and women were taken away. This placed a financial burden on the men and women who had to pay for classes out of pocket. The number of individuals able to afford classes was so small that institutions of higher learning left the prisons. The transformative power of education and the opportunity at a second chance were gone.

This and numerous other harmful policies led the nation’s prison system to explode. Recidivism rates skyrocketed, and the sheer number of inmates pushed the U.S. prison system’s infrastructure to a breaking point.

In 2015, then-President Barack Obama’s administration decided the country needed prison reform. The U.S. Department of Education instituted the Second Chance Pell (SCP) pilot initiative. It understood the vital role education has in rehabilitation.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report in 2018 from a study that looked at recidivism rates from 2005 to 2014. Recidivism rates identify the percentage of inmates that are released and return to prison. They followed inmates from 30 states over a nine-year period and found the recidivism rate within three years of release was 68 percent, 79 percent within six years and 83 percent within nine years. These numbers show the revolving door of the prison system.

Related articles: ‘Providing prisoners access to Pell grants’ and ‘Bill would restore Pell eligibility for inmates’

In 2017, Global Tel Link released statistics showing education’s effects on reducing recidivism rates. The recidivism rate drops to 30 percent for individuals who receive vocational training, 13.7 percent for those with an associate degree and 5.6 percent for a bachelor’s degree. For a master’s degree, the chances of going back are near zero.

So, if you are a numbers person, the statistics don’t lie. For every $1 spent on educational programs, $4 is saved on reincarceration costs.

I’m not a numbers person, though. I am a people person. I strive for human interaction. I want to see it to believe it. Well, just last month I had the opportunity.

‘I’m a college graduate now’

I was invited to be the commencement speaker at Eastern Correctional Institution in Eastover, Maryland, where Wor-Wic Community College held its first commencement ceremony in the correctional facility. In 2015, Wor-Wic was among the first of 64 institutions selected to be part of the Second Chance Pell Grant Initiative. But there was something else special happening that day — not only was this a commencement ceremony, but it was also a Phi Theta Kappa induction ceremony.

As the ceremony started, I watched Wor-Wic’s administration — adorned in full regalia — fill the room. It was an amazing thing to witness inside of a prison. To see their commitment to their students was touching. Led by Wor-Wic’s President Murray Hoy, they took their seats with pride.

The emotions I experienced that day still overwhelm me. Standing in front of them as the first international president with a felony conviction made me so proud. To be given the opportunity to recognize their academic excellence and welcome them into our Society was an experience I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Wor-Wic Community College President Murray Hoy congratulates a graduate (and new PTK member) at the Eastern Correctional Institution.

Five men graduated that day. After two-and-a-half long years, they had completed their hotel/motel management program. If that wasn’t enough, four of them graduated with a 4.0, and eight men were inducted into Phi Theta Kappa. These men followed through that day. They achieved what many believed was impossible.

Dwayne White, who was inducted and graduated with a 4.0, was the student speaker. As he reflected on his and his classmates’ efforts and hard work, people in the room started to cry. He closed by sharing a story about how his late mother made him promise to get his GED while incarcerated. With tears in his eyes, he looked up and told his mother, “I’m a college graduate now.” We all know she was looking down on him proudly.

That was all I needed to see. On that day, lives were changed, and lives were saved.

On behalf of Efraim, Dwayne, and the rest of our members who have been incarcerated or still are, thank you for standing by us. Second chances are for everyone. You as PTK members made that statement when you supported the board of directors’ decision to extend membership to those incarcerated or on probation.

You also made that statement by electing me as your international president. I am forever grateful for the opportunity you have given me to be a beacon of hope for others and living proof that change is possible. I am proud to say I am PTK.

Efraim Morales will be released soon and was happy to tell me he had been accepted to UC Berkeley, as well as Sacramento State. Congratulations, Efraim, we are proud!

About the Author

James Elliott
is the 2019-2020 international president of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. He spent six years in prison for his part in an armed robbery and is now a passionate advocate for higher education in prison. James is a student at Delaware Technical Community College.
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