In 1989, five 14-to 15-year-old boys, four black and one Hispanic, were convicted of a crime they did not commit. They spent between five and 11 years in juvenile delinquent centers and prisons in New York. Though the boys were victims of institutional racism and a flawed justice system that robbed them of a significant portion of their youth, none of them wasted their time behind bars. Though their imprisonment interrupted their high school careers, each one of them took and passed the General Education Development Test while incarcerated.
A documentary co-directed by Ken Burns that opened in Los Angeles last week, the Central Park Five (which the media infamously dubbed the group) tells the story of these boys’ incarceration and eventual acquittal. Though I strongly recommend seeing the film for many reasons, from its accurate portrayal of a deeply flawed American justice system, news media and society to amazing footage and interviews, the fact that all five got their GEDs in prison should remind us of the powerful role that correctional education plays in prison reform.
The prison system remains a widespread, deep problem in the United States. And though California is especially known for incarceration issues — overcrowding, abuses, inefficient prisons and more — the state is beginning to spearhead a prison reform trend. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed his realignment plan into law, moving thousands of inmates from state prison to county jails with a dual goal of saving the state money and relieving overcrowding by redirecting lower-level offenders to local authorities who can better handle them. This year, in the 2012 election, Californians voted by a wide margin to reform the state’s three-strikes law, making it so not any individual convicted of his or her third felony would automatically receive a life sentence, but, instead, only if the individual committed a serious or violent crime.
Both of these historic changes indicate a shift in how Californians perceive and want criminal justice to be handled by the government. And both measures have made significant differences already — there have been drops in the number of offenders, crowding reductions and billions of dollars saved — but the struggle to reform our prisons still needs to go deeper.
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 95 percent of California state prison inmates will be released to society. And the average offender in California reads at an eighth-grade level. Such a low reading level likely means that once released, offenders will be unable to secure anything but an extremely low-level, low-paying, low-reward job, which in turn makes it much more likely for them to re-offend and be sent back to prison.
There’s something wrong with this picture. It is a cyclical problem that California, as a state poised to lead a growing trend, must break with by making correctional education a bigger part of the prison reform movement.
California prisons do offer amazing education programs — 32 out of 33 CDCR institutions are fully accredited schools that offer vocational training, English as a second language courses and the option to obtain high school diplomas and GED certificates. Such programs are essential to easing individuals back into society and providing them with the tools that will prevent them from becoming repeat offenders.
Obviously, opposition for correctional education is strong. Why provide criminals with the right to education? This kind of thinking is understandable, but has no place in a state where prisons are overcrowded and suck money from the state. Correctional education is one of the best ways to get at the root of the state’s prison problem, which arguably begins and ends with education. According to a 2010 study conducted by The Foundation for Educational Choice, more than 50 percent of all U.S. inmates are high school dropouts.
Education — or lack thereof — might not be the direct reason many individuals end up in prison, but more likely than not, it played some part in it. Because of this, Brown should not only continue to support correctional education, but also make it a central focus of his efforts to reform California prisons.
Elena Kadvany is a senior majoring in Spanish and is the Daily Trojan’s Editorial Director. Her column “Beyond the Classroom” ran every other Thursday.