On Tuesday, October 30th, I received one of the greatest gifts of my life: After serving 19 and a half years of a 20-to-life sentence, my husband John Dukes was released from prison.
Each day he’s home is a blessing. Each day he’s home also highlights the challenges that formerly incarcerated people face along their journey of reentry and reacclimation into mainstream society.
For all the years he was incarcerated, John, like many others in state prison, had no access to the various forms of technology that are an integral part of our everyday lives. Imagine interacting with a smartphone for the first time as an adult. It’s a lot to learn and is something that should have been implemented as a part of his plan for release.
And that’s just a small example of the lack of education offered to men and women behind bars. They are not being equipped with the tools necessary to turn their lives around and be meaningful contributors to society.
There is a tragic connection here between the lack of education as adults in prison and the lack of education as children in school. From my observation and experience, both as a teacher and as the wife of a man who was in prison, the poor education delivered to Black and Brown children from impoverished neighborhoods directly contributes to them being in prison in the first place.
There were several men in prison with my husband who, like him, were placed in special education classes while attending elementary or middle school. Many of them are partially literate and unable to adequately advocate for themselves within the confines of the various criminal justice systems they navigate.
When I talk to my husband about the relationship between his education and his incarceration, he reveals that “prior to going to prison I couldn’t get a good job and I was never guided into possible career options that matched my interests when I was in school. I never learned about myself in my classes. I only heard about slavery and MLK, Jr. Every school I attended was all White. That definitely played a factor in my disinterest in school. All I saw was White people doing White things — whatever that was. There wasn’t a place for me, especially as a Black boy who learned differently than others. I didn’t feel connected to my teachers and honestly, most didn’t take much of an interest in me, either.”
The wife side of me hurts to hear this, while the teacher side of me is seething. To go through school without feeling connected to the place where you spend the majority of your life from kindergarten through twelfth grade is a great disservice and most certainly plays a crucial role in marginalized students entering the school-to-prison pipeline. My husband is a prime example of this fact. The education system should not be a feeder to the prison system! Students should not be ushered into jail from their classroom, but what do we think is going to happen when police officers are the first line of defense for disruptive students?
Administrators and teachers play a significant role in the rearing and success of the students of whom we are in charge each day. Make a point to connect with them. Acknowledge and address your implicit biases. Think long and hard before you write up that incident report and start the paper trail ball rolling that, for far too many, is the first step towards that student’s incarceration — an incarceration that remains even when/if they are ever released.