Returning Citizens Talk Criminal Justice Reform

This spring, Free Minds collaborated with national nonprofit The Education Trust, who through a network of motivated advocates, fights to achieve high academic achievement for all students— particularly those of color or living in poverty. Together, Free Minds and The Education Trust hosted “Educational Justice: Centering the Voices and Experiences of Incarcerated Individuals,” a panel discussion deeply rooted in lived experiences of those personally impacted by incarceration.

Often silenced and absent from conversations on reform, a group of incarceration-impacted individuals gathered to lead a conversation on second chances, education, injustice, criminal justice, and the power of high quality education on changing incarcerated lives. Jump-starting the event, longtime Free Minds member Halim Flowers (recently released) read his poem titled “Can You See the Correlation?” which grappled with the themes of poverty, education, and incarceration.

Can You See the Correlation?
By Halim Flowers

Can you see the correlation?
Between chattel slavery and mass incarceration
Literacy deprivation
No education for a slave
Repel Pell Grants
Imprisonment to illiteracy in a cage
Captives forbidden to own a business
Mental poverty of confinement is a perpetual prison
No higher education in our carceral spaces
High recidivism rates so that we don’t escape the places
That lead us to criminal thinking
So that we’ll never be given a beacon
Of hope to guide us from the darkness of what we don’t know
While they starve us of cultural capital
So our intellectual capacity will never grow
We ask for college degrees
Instead they give us cable TV
They prevented their slaves from reading
And treat the prisoners today like heathens
They say why should the criminals get free education
We say all humans deserve elevation
They say why should convicts get free college
We say all Americans should have free access to knowledge
They say why should our tax money be used to allow thugs to enter an university
We say thugs are salvageable human beings worthy of a humane opportunity

Copyright Halim Flowers

Moved by Halim’s words, the audience (Capitol Hill staffers, education advocates, lawyers, lobbyists, educators, and returning citizens) applauded loudly, while several rose to their feet.

Following Halim’s reading, Free Minds Co-founder and Executive Director Tara Libert recognized The Education Trust’s President & CEO (and Free Minds Hero) John King Jr. for his organization’s tireless dedication to providing access to high quality education for all incarcerated students and serving as beacons of hope for educational equity.

The panel consisted of:

  • Moderator Topeka K. Sam, Founder and Executive Director, The Ladies of Hope Ministries (@TopekaKSam)
  • Michelle Jones, Chairwoman, Board of Constructing Our Future, and current doctoral student in the American Studies program at New York University
  • Annie Freitas, Policy Director, Operation Restoration (OR), and Founder, Louisiana Prison Education Coalition (LPEC) (@AnnieORNola)
  • Kareem McCraney, Free Minds member, Program Analyst with DC Corrections Information Council; Kareem has a degree in Paralegal Studies and is a certified paralegal
  • John B. King Jr., President and CEO, The Education Trust, and former U.S. Secretary of Education (@JohnBKing)
  • Gerard Robinson, Executive Director, Center for Advancing Opportunity (CAO) and co-editor of Education for Liberation: The Politics of Promise and Reform Inside and Beyond America’s Prisons (@gerard_924)

With the exception of John King and Gerard Robinson, the remaining panelists were returning citizens who now work to enact change and create greater justice in our current criminal justice system; Michelle Jones spoke of the need to remove all barriers to applying to college for people with criminal records.  Annie Freitas, who led the charge in Louisiana to ban criminal history questions on college applications, spoke of how many people are deterred from applying to college when they get to a question on the application asking, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime.” Additionally, Michelle Jones made note that our commitment needs to be in creating the pathway for people who have been able to start college behind bars to finish—regardless of an interruption or if released.

Through this conversation, incarceration-impacted individuals were able to match stories and faces to reform, humanize issues, and emphasize education as a tool for survival. If they aren’t part of the process, it won’t be done right!

7 people stand in a row

Kareem McCraney, center, and Halim Flowers, right, with the panelists and moderator

Free Minds members–who serve as ambassadors for our incarcerated members–were in attendance and identified with the value of education/educational materials inside correctional facilities. In the words of currently incarcerated Free Minds member Momolu, “When I didn’t know how to read well, my mind was imprisoned. I felt like my soul was unable to acknowledge its purpose. As I became a teen, I looked at the guys on the street corner with their money, guns and drugs and I saw them as honorable men. I just had no other reference point. Education has given me a reason to breathe. It has aligned me with my purpose and taught me my connection to life. When I read my first book, I felt like a champion! I wouldn’t say that education helped me to see myself differently. Education allowed me to truly see myself for the first time!”

Thank you to The Education Trust and all the panelists for truly seeing the critical importance of higher education in prison! We all have to be part of keeping our efforts going.

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