“Education is the key to unlocking the world, and the passport to freedom. ” – Oprah Winfrey
This is how it should be. However, for incarcerated black women, opportunities to participate in educational activities are very limited. Confinement separates individuals from their families and daily life. Educational programs offered to incarcerated individuals can vary according to age and gender. For black women, there are huge hurdles, just like in the real world.
Historically, women have made up a small percentage of total prisoners, which means that prison program investments tend to focus on men. One thing is clear – black women continue to suffer from disparities in educational justice. With the United States seeing an exponential rise in the number of women put in prison, disparities in access to a fair education are lagging behind.
Many women struggle to turn their lives around while behind bars and can find hope in furthering their education. However, in many states, these courses are offered sporadically and unpredictably.
In 2018, according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Women can follow University degree and certifications in Office Management or Hospitality/Culinary Arts. For men, there were associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and certificates in 21 professions, including high-demand fields such as welding, computer technology, and truck driving. when The Prison Reform Act was passed in 2019Legislators expanded the options available to women, but they still fell far short of those offered to men.
In Mississippi, the five professional programs offered to women, which include cosmetology and upholstery, play into gender stereotypes. The thirteen options offered to men include welding, plumbing, industrial electricity, and diesel mechanics. Women are still more likely to be limited to parenting, cooking or beauty classes.
At the end of 2020, Congress finally restored access to Pell Grants for imprisoned students. This new provision will go into effect by July 2023. Some states are also taking steps to support college attendance in prison.
We cannot overstate the benefits of a post-secondary education for black female prisoners. Supporting better education is essential to closing opportunity gaps and helping Black women live productive lives.
In 2013, Netflix gave us the prison series we didn’t know we needed Orange is the new black. We enjoyed this diverse show of women as their stories were told in a way we’ve never seen before. Many have argued that it truly reflects life in prison thus far, and that hasn’t stopped us from being fully invested in the lives of these women.
I recall that one of the persistent pain points was that the prison did not offer a proper GED program. The situation was worse because prisoners who lacked a high school education were not eligible for pay increases unless they completed a GED program for prisoners. Without a high school education, most women are unable to obtain legal, gainful employment once they leave. This, of course, led them straight into a life of crime – which in turn landed them back in prison. Even though the show is fictional, the show never misses out on how this vicious cycle happens.
There is a rationale for prison education: it is cost-effective and leads to long-term benefits. Black women returning home from prison with college credentials can play an important role in encouraging family members and friends to pursue additional education. Prisons with undergraduate programs are less violent among prisoners, creating a safer environment for incarcerated individuals and prison staff. Significant personal benefits of prison education include increased personal income, decreased unemployment, increased political participation and volunteer work, and improved health outcomes.
As a woman, I can’t imagine trying to survive the daily humiliation of being in prison. The vulnerabilities we face as black women can be exacerbated. The truth is that education can make a difference in being able to maintain their existence and break the cycle of imprisonment for generations to come. As a society, we know that without the skills to succeed, rejection from employers or even housing can send anyone into a bad place emotionally. Education has the power to build self-confidence to be competitive.
As an educator, I know that education is not just about giving someone academics that they can take advantage of when they are abroad. It is about developing a different mindset about how they see themselves and interact in the world. Studies have shown That those who participate in higher education programs in prison are significantly less likely to be abused. So, this topic extends beyond imprisonment. If you have black women who are engaged in the pursuit of education, that is self-affirming. There is no limit to what they can do.
The more opportunities black women have while serving their sentences, the more it gives them something to believe in. If we truly believe in making change, if we want to invest in human lives and strengthen communities and families, we want to invest in the education of Black women in prison. A woman can never be free in a country that is not free. This country could invest fully in imprisoned black women to free them instead of controlling them.