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6 True Stories of Transformation from Prison to Influential Professionals through Education

6 min read

Ample research and results show that education has a massive impact on lowering incarceration and crime rates.

More and more, the reports, data, and stories confirm that education is the key to reducing recidivism—the likelihood of inmates to return to prison after being released.

A study by Emery University found that:

  • Former offenders who complete some high school courses have recidivism rates around 55 percent.
  • Vocational training cut recidivism to approximately 30 percent.
  • An associate degree drops the rate to 13.7 percent.
  • A bachelor’s degree reduces it to 5.6 percent.
  • A master’s brings recidivism to 0 percent.

If someone in prison receives the opportunity to learn an industrial skill or acquire knowledge in a specialized field, not only do they rarely return to prison (single digit percentage), but they also go on to build businesses, create jobs, and inspire their local communities.

This shouldn’t sound new to any of us. We all know education can be effective. The numbers that support the positive impacts of education abound. But what does it actually look like in the context of individuals who are incarcerated? How does education actually change lives?

Education, at its core, is the process of gaining knowledge. While knowledge is nice to have, it’s ineffectual when it’s not applied. To make a positive difference in people’s lives, knowledge must be applied in a meaningful way. This action is the manifestation of a vocation.

To illustrate how an education (i.e., reading a book, working through tests, and sitting in a lecture) leads to practical economic betterment (i.e., starting a profitable business, growing a bank account, and supporting a healthy family), below are six true stories of individuals who turned their lives around and applied their education in prison to build careers that made (and continue to make) a positive impact in the world.

6 True Stories of Transformation from Prison to Influential Professionals

  1. Sean Pica, Hudson Link for Higher Education — Sean Pica entered prison as a 9th grade New Yorker with a 24-year sentence. He said he had little hope in himself or any sort of redemptive future. But, when he began reading children’s books to fellow inmates and teaching them how to write letters to their loved ones, he witnessed how education created a flicker of joy amid the isolation. Soon, he enrolled in an organization called Hudson Link, a education program in prisons (and Stand Together Foundation Catalyst), and took college classes. After he was released, he went on to earn 400 credits from Nyack College and two master’s degrees from New York Theological Seminary and Hunter College. In 2007, Pica returned to lead Hudson Link as its Executive Director. Today, Hudson Link’s programs give an education to thousands of men and women in prison, less than 4% of whom recidivate, compared to the rate of 67% nationwide. Pica’s work saves New York State taxpayers over $21 million per year, and that number continues to increase.

Education transforms hopeless situations into inspiring opportunities to lead and give back.

  1. Tim Arnold, Lawn Life — By the time he was 18 years old, Ohio-based Tim Arnold had 27 convictions on his record and spent the next six years incarcerated. “By everyone else’s account, I was a failure.” But when he turned 25, someone gave him a chance in spite of his past and hired him full time. He went to real estate school and asked plumbers and electricians questions like, “How did you fix that?” He learned quickly. In 2008, he launched Lawn Life, a nonprofit that employs formerly incarcerated young men and teaches them work ethics and business skills. Today, Lawn Life has hired over 700 at-risk youth in five different cities.

The best person to teach the lessons you wish you were taught when you were younger is you.

  1. Kenyatta Leal, The Last Mile — Growing up with an absent father, Kenyatta Leal’s dealing with drugs and robbery with firearms led him to a life sentence in the San Quentin, California prison at the age of 22. In prison, Leal learned about The Last Mile, an entrepreneurship program for inmates. “I was always looking for a way to channel my entrepreneurial energy and gift.” The Last Mile inspired Leal to launch Code.7370, an education program that teaches incarcerated individuals how to code. To overcome the challenge of no internet connection, Code.7370 created a proprietary programming platform that simulates a live coding experience. Once inmates graduate, they’re invited to join TLMworks, the first web development agency to provide individuals coming out of prison with the opportunity to earn a living, professional wage.

“Software engineers who are judged by the quality of the code they develop, not by the stigma of criminality.” — Kenyatta Leal

  1. Richard Miles, Miles of Freedom(MOF) — From age 19 to 34, Richard Miles spent 15 years in prison for serious crimes he didn’t commit. Even after his release, employers and apartments offered him nothing. “The perfect mixture for recidivism,” he wrote, referring to the obstacles he faced over and over again upon release. When the case Miles vs. State of Texas exonerated him completely, he had one mission: to give men and women re-entering society housing, employment, and the opportunity to regain the dignity to rebuild their lives. MOF, a Stand Together Foundation Catalyst, offers educational classes, including a three-month Job Readiness Workshop, which results in financial literacy, resume building, and placement with employers.

Empathy undergirds the drive to accomplish a huge, meaningful vision.

  1. Marilyn Barnes, Root and Rebound — In and out of prison for 20 years, Marilyn Barnes struggled with drug addiction. Her time in California prison as a young woman made things even worse. With the help and guidance of Root and Rebound’s Roadmap to Reentry guide, Barnes went on to earn her master’s degree in education, authored the book From Crack to College and Vice Versa and founded a non-profit, Because Black Is Still Beautiful. Having experienced systemic problems firsthand, Barnes’ education fuels her passion to help people break free from the cycle of recidivism.

One of Root and Rebound’s core principles is education empowers. Knowledge breeds power and can have exponential impact.

  1. Hector, Getting Out and Staying Out (GOSO) — Enrolled at the infamous Riker’s Island prison in New York City, Hector regularly corresponded with Getting Out and Staying Out, one of the most effective re-entry programs in the New York City area for 16 to 24 year old men. During his five year sentence, Hector received study materials and career counseling. While incarcerated, Hector earned his High School Equivalency diploma, obtained a Masonry certification, and facilitated the prison’s Alternative to Violence curriculum. Since his release, Hector completed a successful internship at a Brooklyn-based bakery, Ovenly, one of GOSOWorks’ employer partners, and was hired as their head of porters. His story of transformation is one of many, as 86% of GOSO participants never return to prison and many have earned degrees or certificates from leading colleges and universities.

Change doesn’t have to wait until after a sentence is over. Change can happen in prison, all along the way.

Education isn’t just a buzzword to throw around as a solution in the nonprofit world. The six stories above — Sean, Tim, Kenyatta, Richard, Marilyn, and Hector — are brilliant examples of how education empowers disenfranchised individuals to rediscover hope and self-worth, gain knowledge and skills, and take action to make a positive difference in the world.

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