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prison education programs
Education in prison can be key to reducing recidivism.   Credit: Wayne D’Orio for The Hechinger Report

Since the killing of George Floyd, issues centered around law enforcement have been put in the spotlight, thrust front and center. Protesters have all but begged those in charge — or able to effect change — to at least concede that there may be a problem, and therefore a need for reform. Buildings have burned, lives have been lost, and some cities have reduced funding to their police departments.

But we seem to have forgotten that the same toxicity and systemic racism that drives acts of violence and inequity by police can be found in every other level of the criminal justice system. Any conversation about reform that excludes the people bearing the consequences of arrest and imprisonment would be incomplete, and therefore unproductive. As an incarcerated individual (I am serving a 12-year sentence for robbery) with a stake in the topic, I worked with some of my neighbors to form a prisoner-led organization, operating in the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington state, to isolate certain inequities within the prison system and help bridge them to achieve true recidivism-reducing reform.

Related: The next frontier for college programs for prisoners and ex-prisoners: Teaching them entrepreneurship

Individuals who participate in educational programming while incarcerated are 43 percent less likely to return to prison, that makes education the most powerful rehabilitative tool a prisoner can embrace. However, until recently, none of the classes offered at MCC were taught in Spanish, despite the fact that prisoners of Hispanic origin make up 15 percent of Washington’s incarcerated population, according to  the state’s Department of Corrections. (People of Hispanic origin are overrepresented in Washington prisons; only 12 percent of the state’s population is Hispanic.)

By running the LDO, my colleagues and I have found a sense of purpose, humanity and true rehabilitation.

The English-only courses offered were also useless for those being deported to Latin American countries upon release. After deportation, with no support, education or job skills, felons sometimes return to the United States, where their families reside, and can then be charged with new felonies for doing so. Seeing a need to balance the scales, in 2016, several members of Monroe’s 70-year-old Hispanic Culture Group, myself included, formed an organization aimed at creating educational opportunities for a demographic that seemed forgotten by everybody else.

We structured a nonprofit, naming it the Latino Development Organization (LDO), and recruited outside collaborators, who soon became the board of directors. By 2018, the LDO had entered into a contract with the Mexican Government to offer the Plaza Comunitaria at MCC, an online program that provides a basic education certificate (much like an American GED) that is recognized in Mexico. Today, the LDO has an office in the city of Monroe, which facilitates many programs and classes in the prison, including an arts program offered in tandem with The New Alchemists collective [add a reference if you wish], and a successful mentorship program.

One of the aspects of LDO I am most proud of is that it has true horizontal leadership — prisoners guide and direct the organization in partnership with allies on the outside. Every decision pertaining to general operations of the LDO is made by an incarcerated advisory board,  then passed along to the board of directors. Most of the language describing the organization has been drafted by incarcerated members of various LDO committees. No financial transaction is made without approval from the advisory board, and any work that can be done by prisoners is done by prisoners. This maintains a healthy power dynamic, combats infantilization, reaffirms the humanity of participants and gives us the opportunity to learn and practice leadership and organizational skills that will help us transition back into society.

Related: OPINION — The devastating consequences of leaving higher education out of prison reform

Social justice movements must be led by the communities they serve, and those taking place in prisons are no exception. The Department of Corrections (DOC) is structured around systems of dehumanization, which strip prisoners of their identities and make them subordinate to everybody not locked up with them. This renders reintegration into society nearly impossible for individuals who have spent extended periods of time being brainwashed into believing they’re less than human. Most volunteers enter prisons with good intentions, but DOC restrictions that prohibit humanizing behavior or views toward prisoners too often allow volunteers to veer into roles of superiority over a community composed of people from the most disenfranchised factions of society. By running the LDO, my colleagues and I have found a sense of purpose, humanity and true rehabilitation.

Francisco “Javier” Salazar-Sandoval, 41, who has been incarcerated since he was convicted of first degree murder at 18, serves as the LDO’s facilitator, whose job it is to assure that all decisions made by the advisory board align with the organization’s mission. Last year he earned a certificate from the LDO for his work as a mentor to many younger members.

“The certificate is nice, but what’s really satisfying is to see people make positive changes in such a negative environment,” he said. “Our program gives them an outlet to make those changes and keeps mentors and mentees accountable to putting in the work.”

Prison reform isn’t a concept that can be easily defined or accomplished by accepting any one solution. The issues with the current system are dynamic and must be addressed individually. However, we believe that if duplicated, our model can be applied to other rehabilitative programs. It’s our hope that as we continue to develop it through community feedback and involvement, and trial and error, we’ll be able to add to the conversation, and contribute stepping-stones to achieving this elusive end.

Michael J Moore is the author of three novels, including “Highway Twenty,” which appeared on the preliminary ballot for the Bram Stoker Award.

This story about police reform was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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