First Degree: Education Behind Bars

On Wednesday, August 17, the Center for Civic Innovation co-hosted a screening of the short documentary First Degree with Pentorship.

First Degree is a 30-minute documentary that profiles the transformative power of higher education in Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York. The film introduces us to a handful of men who are or were incarcerated, most for decades-long sentences, who were able to participate in the Hudson Link for Higher Education program while incarcerated. They subsequently earned college degrees, when most entered prison without even a high school diploma. One of the men profiled even got released from prison only to come back as the director of Sing Sing’s educational program, not as an incarcerated person.

Our friends at Pentorship helped facilitate a discussion after the screening. Pentorship is a Georgia nonprofit on a mission to reduce recidivism among returning citizens by increasing incarcerated people’s exposure to 21st century skills, like adaptability and entrepreneurial thinking. By offering courses directly to people who are incarcerated, Pentorship is working to provide learners with the skills they need to become creative critical thinkers who can accomplish their personal and professional goals.

Did you know…

The US incarcerates more citizens than any other country on the planet, and Georgia has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the nation.

Each year, Georgia releases approximately 20,000 people from prison. 21% of folks who are released after serving their whole sentences are released with no supervision at all.

The recidivism rate in Georgia has hovered around 30% for nearly a decade…

In 1994, Congress made people who were incarcerated ineligible for federal Pell grants to help them access higher education; many states followed suit…
— http://georgiaopportunity.org/assets/2014/10/GCO-prisoner-reentry-fact-sheet-2014.pdf, http://www.ihep.org/sites/default/files/uploads/docs/pubs/learningreducerecidivism.pdf

A robust discussion of the barrier that returning citizens coming out of prison face, as well as possible solutions to break down those barriers.

Regardless of whether or not you have a college degree, a criminal record is one factor that easily lets employers knock your application out of the running. Some of our audience members mentioned that, even though they were inclined to hire returning citizens, government contracts would not allow them to do so, or they felt ill-prepared to navigate the hiring process for returning citizens, unsure of what types of questions they should or shouldn’t ask. Another audience member who was a returning citizen shared a story of getting formal and technical education, getting an opportunity to help grow a business, passing all the technical tests for a given professional, but still not getting licensed for that occupation because of his criminal record.

With a room full of entrepreneurs, we set out on a broad brainstorming session, casting aside usual conventions of the types of programs that have already worked. Audience members suggested:

  • Giving returning citizens the right to vote, so that they’d be taken more seriously by their elected officials;

  • Consistently pressuring elected officials to open opportunities to returning citizens;

  • Instituting programs with transferable skills in demand from employers in correctional facilities;

  • Looking seriously at other countries as models and implementing their best ideas here;

  • Banning prison Halloween costumes as a way to help end the stigma of having a criminal record;

  • Reducing restrictions on educational opportunities, such as Pell Grants, for people who are incarcerated and returning citizens; and

  • A media campaign to change the language and narrative around people who are incarcerated, in the style of campaigns working to end the stigma around HIV/AIDS.

Problems such as mass incarceration and generational poverty are complex and will not be solved overnight. However, public dialogue and commitments to action are slowly chipping away at the stigma and working towards sustainable solutions that are making our community better for all its residents.

Inspired by this conversation? There are ways to get involved!

Pentorship is looking for volunteers! They’re looking for professionals anywhere in the country who are ready to give real-world feedback to their students. Learn more and apply here!

Consider becoming a member of the Center for Civic Innovation! By becoming a member, you’ll join a community of civic innovators and social entrepreneurs who are working everyday to improve our city (not to mention free or highly discounted, priority registration to nearly all our events). Learn more and sign up here!