The Rev. Alvan Johnson was preaching at York Correctional Institution Sunday, part of his church's thrice-a-month effort to minister to Connecticut inmates.
Johnson has a consistent message for the offenders — 75 percent of whom did not finish high school. Three-quarters of the inmates are African American and Latino, most from urban centers. Many of the offenders have addiction problems.
"I tell them the church is waiting for them when they get back," said Johnson, the pastor at Bethel AME Zion Church in Bloomfield. "I also talk to them about not wasting any time — and to read everything they can get their hands on."
But the large majority of Connecticut's approximately 20,000 inmates have a huge deficiency in reading. The Sentencing and Parole Review Task Force, convened by the governor in response to the recent triple slayings in Cheshire, hosted a public hearing this week on how best to improve the re-entry process for released inmates.
Here's a suggestion: Teach the inmates to read — and write. Don't let them out until they've earned at least a high school equivalency diploma. If they have a GED when they're imprisoned, then make it mandatory to earn at least an associate's degree before release. It costs $25,000 a year to house a Connecticut inmate. We might as well call it "tuition" and turn those brick buildings into learning and counseling centers. How about Somers University or Niantic College? No, I'm not crazy.
If inmates can leave prison with their level of education significantly increased, their substance abuse problem in check and their spirits, through folks such as Johnson, awakened, then maybe society will be more inclined to give them a second chance. And maybe there won't be the need to return to those self-destructive lifestyles.
"What happens when you tell someone you've been incarcerated?" Johnson said. "They don't hire you. You become discouraged and depressed and ostracized, and you go back to that same community that spawned that same atmosphere that got you into trouble in the first place."
Johnson has been sitting on an idea that he needs to move on. He calls it the EXIT program — Ex-Offenders in Training. Basically, it combines literacy, spiritual teachings and job-training skills for inmates.
The Department of Correction's budget is more than $600 million. Only $25.4 million is allocated for education and vocational training — less than 5 percent of the spending.
Five years ago, I wrote about a 27-year-old Hartford woman who was in trouble for most of her life before being sent to York in Niantic for assault in 1992.
She earned her GED while serving a four-year bid, then started taking college courses. She figured that, with her background, she would make an ideal social worker. Once out of prison, she started working on her associate's degree at Capital Community College. The woman told me her goal was to get her bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in social work.
This summer, the woman informed me that she would be getting her master's degree from Smith College School of Social Work in September. I couldn't wait to tell you her story — then Cheshire happened. Two parolees were charged in the killings.The public's tone and mood about ex-offenders changed. The young woman politely asked that I not write about her, concerned that it could hurt her job-hunting prospects.
Education transformed that ex-offender's life. What a shame that because of public perceptions about ex-cons, she's afraid to tell you so herself.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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