In the wake of George Floyd’s horrific death, white Americans increasingly understand what it means to be Black in this county. Even before this gruesome event was captured on video for us all to see, Trey Gowdy, a former U.S. House of Representatives member and Republican litigator, was quoted as saying: “I have finally begun to realize that the criminal justice system treats me different, because I am white.”
Since the company that I run, New Century Education, specializes in working with the incarcerated, we have known for decades that our adult prison and juvenile justice systems serve populations that are highly disproportionately Black and Brown. As educators, our focus has always been to help all those who find themselves incarcerated to prepare for a better life post release.
Research shows that for every grade level increase achieved by an inmate in prison, there is a 3% reduction in recidivism. Our numbers show that most men coming into prison without a GED or High School Diploma function at a 3rd grade level in math and a 5th grade level in reading/English Language Arts. Research also tells us that for every year of use in incarceration, the average New Century software user achieves about two grade levels of improvement in both math and reading/ELA. Over three years, that equals a 18% reduction in recidivism. The Rand Corporation reports that for every dollar spent on educating inmates, the criminal justice system receives $5 back in savings – keeping fewer men locked up. With every grade level improvement achieved in prison, the men’s likelihood of recidivating declines a little, the communities to which they return are a little bit safer, and the state budgets improve a bit.
Just as fulfilling to me is when a fifty something inmate tells me “I never could do math before, but now I can do this problem!” and they want me to sit with them while they solve the next one in the lesson. Or better yet, I see the inmate who can finally read well enough to study the CDL manual and prepare to take the test for his Commercial Driver’s License, and the promise of a career post release.
The criminal justice system needs changing. Meanwhile, the battle that we fight daily is to help our students, mostly of color, avoid returning to prison.