Gratitude Challenge, Day 4: JCI Scholars Program

I’ve been called to the gratitude challenge, but rather than follow the rules I’ll be posting each day about an organization whose work I am grateful for.

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I am grateful for the work of the Jessup Correctional Institution (JCI) Scholars Program. If you feel so moved, you can support this work here.

Through the hard work of area faculty members, the JCI Scholars Program offers college-level classes free of charge to people at the Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland.

It is no secret the the prison system in America is broken. Nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners are held in American prisons. Black men are heavily over represented in this sample, and almost 9% of Black men in their late 20s are behind bars.

There is strong evidence to demonstrate that social and institutional racism drive these grim statistics: every second and a half, a public school student is suspended, primarily students of color. 70% of students involved in “in-school” arrests or referred to law enforcement are Black and Latino; 40% of students expelled from U.S. schools each year are black.

Intentionally or not, our system carefully shepherds Black men through a path of increasing dysfunction and punishment. A path which leads to incarceration for many.

Many far wiser than me have written eloquently on the school to prison pipeline, and I could not hope to match their expertise here.

But it is clear that the system is broken. It is clear there is much work to be done.

There are many social justice and legal advocacy organizations engaged in this work, documenting the problems, raising awareness, fighting for solutions.

But I find the work of the JCI Scholar’s Program particularly powerful.

First, as a practical matter, education is a valuable tool. How can we hope to reform the prison system without the voices and the agency of those who have been incarcerated? I could fight for this cause, but, really, I know nothing, nothing about this issue.

I could be an advocate and an ally, and I’d like to do what I can, but ultimately, the people most effected need to be empowered to speak and to act.

Education can be the key to that.

But more deeply, education isn’t just a collection of facts and figures. It is whole ways of thinking, whole approaches to problems. The education I have benefited from has fundamentally shaped and changed me as a person. It has made me who I am.

Everyone should have access to that.

Everyone should have an opportunity to ponder the deep questions, to face the dark challenges, to reflect on their life, their society, and their role in it. Everyone, as the JCI Scholars Program states, should have access to ideas.

Perhaps some of those who benefit from the program may some day return to life on the outside and face the harsh reintegration into society. Perhaps their participation in this program will make them a little different, a little better.

But as the program clearly states, most of their students are lifers. Most have committed violent crimes.

But all of them are people.

All of them.

So while we talk about the intrenched injustice that shaped their experience, while we determine what punishment is best suited for their crime and debate the merits of various carceral approaches.

We should remember – they are all of them people. And all people should have access to ideas. All people should have a voice.

Please consider supporting this work.

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