By Summer Chamberlain, Amy Hussey and Raine Raynor
Today is Juneteenth. June 19, 1865 was the day that the enslaved people of Texas finally received word that they were freed – two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The holiday is considered a time to celebrate the milestones made thus far in mitigating racial injustice and to reflect on the progress still needed for Black Americans to have true equality.
The recent nation-wide protests sparked by George Floyd’s death have illuminated the systemic racism which is still rooted in all aspects of today’s society. Today marks the end of slavery in one sense, but modern day slavery is still perpetuated through the US prison system; the Thirteenth Amendment allows for the continuation of slavery as long as it is “a punishment for a crime.”
This loophole, combined with racist policing measures, has led to the mass incarceration of Black Americans at proportionately higher rates than White Americans. In 2018, Black inmates made up 33% of the US’s prison population, yet just 12% of the US’s total adult population, whereas Whites made up 30% of prisoners and 63% of the adult population. Furthermore, over 76% of inmates will recidivate, or relapse into criminal behavior, after their release, leading to reincarceration.
How do we break this vicious cycle? One option is to provide better educational opportunities for incarcerated people. Inmates who participate in correctional educational programs are 43% less likely to recidivate than inmates who do not (Department of Justice 2015). However, there are many barriers for prisoners who want to participate in educational programs. Certain programs might be limited by location, some may cost too much, and some may seem too challenging for incarcerated people who experienced previous obstacles to education.
At College Guild, we provide free correspondence courses for prisoners on subjects ranging from marine biology to gardening to creative writing. Our organization is based on mutual respect; our students tell us constantly that the power of being respected while incarcerated is life-changing. There is not one simple way to solve systemic racism, but recognizing our country’s past is the first step to understanding its pervasiveness.