Education as Rehabilitation

By Sarah Masters

What a privilege it was to meet Johnny Perez and Jule Hall at the Ending Mass Incarceration Conference held this week in Atlanta!

Auburn Seminary was a co-sponsor of this conference held at Ebenezer Baptist Church this past week. As director of the Hartley Media Impact Initiative at Auburn, I moderated a workshop with Mr. Perez and Mr. Hall, during which we screened scenes from the documentaries Rikers: An American Jail and College Behind Bars: The Bard Prison Initiative. Mr. Perez and Mr. Hall were protagonists in these films.

Mr. Perez was formerly incarcerated at the Rikers prison, and during that time he spent 3 years in solitary confinement. Mr. Perez is now the director of the U.S. Prison Program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, an interfaith membership organization working to end US-sponsored torture and cruel and degrading treatment. He also serves on the board of the Juvenile Law Center, a non-profit public interest law firm. Mr. Perez studied and wrote poetry while imprisoned and, following his incarceration, obtained a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice.

Mr. Hall is an alumnus of the Bard Prison Initiative program, which provided him with the opportunity to earn a college degree while incarcerated. Using his skills in data analysis and strategy development, Mr. Hall now works in the Unit for Gender Racial and Ethnic Justice at the Ford Foundation. After release from prison, Mr. Hall enrolled in a graduate-level, public health specialization and became a Bard Prison Initiative -Tow Public Health Fellow. Mr. Hill was also a campaign manager at Picture Motion, where he helped create social impact campaigns for award-winning documentaries addressing prison re-entry, gun violence, and racial and economic inequality.

During a Q &A following the screenings, we first discussed how their educational experiences while imprisoned impacted them both while on the inside and as they went through reintegration into society.

They talked about how focusing on educational goals strengthened not only themselves as individuals but, with fellow inmates also enrolled in educational programs, strengthened the prison units they were a part of. Self-worth and skills in time management and leadership led to more cohesive and less risky environments.

In a number of prisons, incarcerated individuals with short-term sentences are prioritized in terms of access to these invaluable educational programs over those who are incarcerated with longer or life-long sentences. The belief that since you won’t be entering society any time soon if ever, a GED, associate degree or bachelors is not important. Mr. Perez and Mr. Hall strongly disagreed, felt that education should be available to all, and added that, in their experiences, this had not been the case.

Mr. Perez and Mr. Hall also commented on the push-back attitude visualized in scenes from College Behind Bars addressing free education for the incarcerated. The argument goes, as posed by a mother of one of the inmates in the film who was studying for a degree while in prison: “Why must I pay for my other daughters’ educations when they have not committed a crime, while my daughter in prison gets a free education?”

Mr. Perez and Mr. Hall spoke eloquently about how education and faith intersect behind bars in terms of shared purpose and tenacity in reaching study course goals while dealing with constant noise, lack of privacy and often dangerous prison conditions. It was moving to see in the film scenes incarcerated men and women wrestling with demanding content – advanced algebra, Mandarin, Irish history and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. As one professor noted, these students are challenged with curricula identical to content in the best schools and universities in America.

It was a privilege to have Mr. Hall and Mr. Perez participate in the Auburn workshop. They are true role models and set the bar for the currently incarcerated, the formerly incarcerated, their friends and families, and all of us.

Sarah Masters is Director of the Hartley Media Impact Initiative at Auburn.

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