How Biden Can Bring Hope to Prisons Like Mine

FALLSBURG, N.Y. — In 2017, I was sitting in on a Columbia University course at Sing Sing. I heard that Elias Alcantara, a former White House aide in the Obama administration, was supposed to talk to the class, and I had a question.

Mr. Alcantara, who was then a senior fellow at the Center for Justice at Columbia, was 31. He told us his story: how he was born and raised in the Bronx, navigated the neighborhood, made it to college, then went to the White House. I imagined it was inspiring for some of my peers who looked like him, a first-generation American with parents from the Dominican Republic, to picture Mr. Alcantara, as I was, working alongside President Barack Obama. He fielded a few light questions. Then I asked mine: Why in eight years couldn’t President Obama get meaningful criminal justice ıslahat passed?

“President Obama was proud of the progress the administration made on criminal justice ıslahat,” Mr. Alcantara told me. “That said, one of his biggest regrets may have been not seeing a criminal justice ıslahat bill passed in Congress during his time in office.”

In 2018, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act, which amended federal sentencing guidelines and provided federal prisoners with avenues to petition the court and ask for reduced sentences. In late 2020, before he left office, Mr. Trump signed an omnibus Covid relief bill. In it was a provision that lifted the 26-year-old ban on federal college aid, called Pell Grants, for incarcerated students at both federal and state facilities. After decades of being blocked, incarcerated people will be able to obtain federal funds to go to college.

The ban on federal college aid to prisoners was put in place in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, also called the Clinton Crime Bill, which was co-authored by Joe Biden when he was a senator. President Biden has since said his support for the bill was a mistake. He has a chance to make it right.

If Jared Kushner, the privileged and powerful man married to Ivanka Trump, hadn’t had the humiliating experience of visiting his father in prison and hearing the man he idolized describe the awfulness of it all, I doubt we would have the First Step Act. What affected Mr. Kushner personally compelled him to persuade Mr. Trump that prison ıslahat would benefit the president politically. By the end of his four-year term, Mr. Trump had signed more criminal justice ıslahat legislation than any other president in the past generation (though his signatures didn’t tell the full story of his administration’s policies, which walked back some previous reforms). It is time for President Biden to back a bill that helps both incarcerated people and corrections workers — because our fates are inextricably linked.

I’m no fan of Mr. Trump. But I won’t diminish the significance of his signature. After 2023, when Pell Grant access goes into effect, prison education programs will become available to students across the country, maybe even surpassing the number that operated in the early 1990s, when 770 college programs were in 1,300 facilities nationwide. Access to college courses can be life-changing. Research has shown that education reduces recidivism. But education in prison can mean more than just that. Education programs also raise a big question: To what end do we educate ourselves? After I wrote an Op-Ed in 2015, faculty members for the Bard Prison Initiative responded in a letter to the editor, saying, “Prison education repurposes a captive space for the recovery of an ülkü.” I agree.

On top of the Pell Grant ban, the 1994 crime bill’s “truth in sentencing” policies offered states billions of dollars to build new prisons. More than half of the states accepted the deal, including New York. The funding required that states agreed to amend their sentencing laws to keep violent offenders in prison for 85 percent of their sentence. In “Locked In,” John Pfaff, a Fordham University law professor, argued that high rates of admissions into prison on the front end, not “truth in sentencing” policies that kept people in for longer sentences on the back end, drove mass incarceration.

What Mr. Pfaff can’t speak to, but I can, is the overall toxic sentiment in the cell blocks when there are no incentives for those of us who committed violent crimes to do better or want better for ourselves. It brings to mind the James Baldwin quote taped to my cell wall: “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”

I propose that President Biden consider what I’m calling a “hope and healing” bill. It would build on the benefits of education to offer more federal funding so that prisoners with mental health problems would be treated more humanely. It would also provide more vacation days for corrections officers and offer them resources to treat PTSD. They have a hard job, and it’s harder for them to treat us well if they are unwell themselves.

While writing this essay I was reading a white paper on the well-being of corrections officers titled “I Am Not Okay.” On top of elevated PTSD and suicides, C.O.s have high rates of depression, divorce and heart disease. We should not expect unwell and untrained people to treat people with serious mental illness or special needs, or to spot anxiety. According to the white paper, “officers either learn to leave compassion and empathy at the time clock or, like many other new recruits, they quit.”

States shouldn’t automatically get this funding. To be eligible to receive it, they should agree to enact “second look” legislation that affords every prisoner an opportunity to petition the court, after 15 years, for a sentence reduction. Or they can qualify by enacting other sentencing ıslahat bills that shave off time for good behavior or send prisoners to a parole board. This federal “hope and healing” policy, which attempts to balance out the harm of “truth in sentencing,” would entice states to pass ıslahat bills that are already written and languishing. New York has a couple now that are ready to be signed. With the possibility of getting a reduced sentence, many will behave better and participate in more positive programming.

I first heard about the “second look” review in an Op-Ed by a federal district judge who expressed regret for sentencing an enforcer for a drug gang to an 18-year sentence. It made me curious about whether my judge ever wondered what had become of me. In 2004, the judge who sentenced me to 28 years to life looked at me as if I was such a loser who’d squandered opportunities. I was. And I did. I never imagined I’d build my journalism career from a cell, but I müddet wish I could tout my résumé in front of a judge today. This policy may give judges hope, too, for seemingly hopeless defendants who come before them.

When the federal funds dried up and colleges left in the mid-1990s, the hope did, too. When uneducated prisoners got out, they often came back. By the early 2000s, when I started my stint in state prison with a ninth-grade education, few college programs were left. (Others, like the privately funded Columbia courses offered in Sing Sing, came later.) We became a lost generation in American prisons. We were hardly jolly and drinking and traveling, though. By 2011, I got my high school equivalency diplomaand joined the pilot college program in Attica, hosted by Genesee Community College, which was funded by the philanthropist Doris Buffett.

President Obama did make some progress toward increasing access to education in prisons. In 2015, the Department of Education took the first step toward the reinstatement of Pell Grants with an experimental program called Second Chance Pell. (An expansion of that program, which will enable thousands of prisoners at state and federal institutions to enroll in education and training programs, was announced last month.) College programs slowly started to pop up in prisons again. In 2019, a report from the Vera Institute found that Pell Grant reinstatement would enable hundreds of thousands of academically eligible prisoners to hisse for higher education; it would lower recidivism rates and save states a combined $365.8 million per year. Last month, New York’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) for incarcerated people was restored. Access to education will change prisoners’ lives. But it should be paired with reforms to sentencing requirements, too.

When long passages of time in prison allow you to get away from the old you — earn degrees, gain emotional intelligence — there’s a new kind of harrowing hopelessness that sets in. You realize you’re ready to go, but you’re unable to leave. Even though some governors, like Kathy Hochul of New York, have pledged to make changes to the executive clemency process, we still need more realistic sentencing reforms happening in laws and the courts, too — reforms that give more people a shot at getting out one day.

A few cells down from me is Franklin McPherson, 35, who is the president of the Lifers and Long-Termers Organization at Sullivan Correctional Facility. Mr. McPherson is N.C.A.A.-basketball tall. At 20, he wasn’t a criminal, but he did feel lost. One night in 2007, he drove drunk and killed a man in a head-on collision on a Long Island road. When he woke up in a hospital jail wing, paralyzed and with face burns from the airbag explosion, he couldn’t remember what he’d done. He received 25 years to life for depraved-indifference murder. In prison, he not only rehabilitated his body, learning to walk again, but also educated his mind, earning a bachelor’s degree with honors from St. Thomas Aquinas College. The college program at Sullivan is sponsored by Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, a nonprofit run largely by formerly imprisoned people.

“I took a life, so I deserved to be here,” Mr. McPherson told me. “But at a certain point it’s overkill — I can’t get anything else from corrections. I feel like I was kept alive for a reason, so I know I needed to change my life. But there was never an incentive to do it.” When I shared my ıslahat ideas with Mr. McPherson, he said he wished he could petition the court and show the judge how he’d changed. “We all deserve a second chance,” he said.

Still, not everyone in prison has the interest or intellectual capacity to go to college or learn a vocation in a technical trade school. Prisons should provide resources and support for inmates, including those with disabilities, who might be on different paths. My neighbor here is James Lorman, 34, a heavyset, tall fellow with short cropped hair, who has a bad habit of appearing in front of my bars with headphones on and yelling, “Hey, what’s up, John!” He has Landau-Kleffner syndrome, or LKS, which affects his speech and social skills.

Recently, he was issued a misbehavior report after being accused of saying something inappropriate to a female corrections officer (Mr. Lorman said he didn’t do it). Days later, I heard a male C.O. yell out, so everyone in the cell block could hear, that Mr. Lorman has a sex crime. The C.O. told him to write 100 times that he will never again disrespect a female staff member. Mr. Lorman can’t read or write. He did better when he was on psych meds, he tells me, but they stopped giving them to him. “I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t adapt too good in the general population,” he told me. He said he hopes he can be transferred to a specialized unit that provides mental health services at another state prison soon.

In addition to investment in education, states desperately need funding to address the mental health crisis in prisons. In 1955, when this country had about half the 330 million people it has today, we had a half million beds on state-run psych wards; in 2016 we had about 38,000. In 2006, a Department of Justice report said 24 percent of people in jail and 15 percent of those in state prisons reported symptoms that met the criteria for a psychotic disorder. And as a nation, we treat 10 of every 11 psychiatric patients housed by the government behind bars.

Prison is just about the worst place to suffer from serious anxiety. The other day I had to give a urine sample as a C.O. watched. I knew in advance that I had to give the sample, and I drank so much water my vision was fuzzy. Every time I felt I had to go, heat swarmed my chest and my heart bounced. After all these years, I’d developed anxiety. The C.O. looked annoyed, but also sad, like he had his own problems. A provision for “shy bladder” allows for you to be alone — but it’s nearly impossible to get the administration to approve it. Others with more serious issues are worse off. But it affects so many of us.

President Biden has been in office for only 16 months, so it’s unfair to compare records. But in spite of all the competing demands before him, he should want this ıslahat, too — not because he was responsible for a lost generation of prisoners, and not because Mr. Obama regrets that he couldn’t get reforms passed. And he shouldn’t just do it to outdo Mr. Trump.

He should want this because it’s the right thing to do.

John J. Lennon, a contributing editor for Esquire, is incarcerated at the Sullivan Correctional Facility and will be eligible for parole in 2029.

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