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Scholars Behind Bars aim to reform prisoners through books, education

Scholars Behind Bars

Scholars Behind Bars

By Dennis Boatwright II

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed into law the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill — one of the most callous acts of legislation targeting prisoners that effectively put a lid over their educational ambitions.

This act, hidden inside a subsection of that bill, overturned a long-standing section of the Higher Education Act of 1965 permitting inmates to receive a Pell Grant for post-secondary education while incarcerated. The passage of this act ensured the academic achievement of lower income inmates does not rise above a high school diploma or G.E.D.

Many critical observers view this severe act as an extension of an overall plan to guarantee the $60 billion prison system remains a lucrative industry, and to keep as many African Americans incarcerated as possible.

“Without education, job skills, and other basic services,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal candidly pointed out, “offenders are likely to repeat the same steps that brought them to jail in the first place … This is a problem that needs to be addressed head-on. We cannot say we are doing everything we can to keep our communities and our families safe if we are not addressing the high rate at which offenders are becoming repeat criminals.”

According to a Pew Research study, over 80 percent of parolees will re-offend, and of this tragic number, about 45 percent will return to prison within three years. This author was recently released after serving 23 years. For two decades, I personally experienced and observed the harmful impact of ending the Pell Grant program.

For example, termination of those funds makes it certain only upper-income inmates leave correctional facilities with higher education accomplishments. Inmates who cannot afford to further their education, on the other hand, are tormented by the prospects of not being able to improve their learning. I was among just a handful of men that were fortunate to have people in society who would buy books and educational material to meet my learning needs. Most inmates are not so lucky.

The noble mission of Scholars Behind Bars is to purchase books and educational material for prisoners who wish to take their learning to greater heights. Specifically, this non-profit organization will buy inmates college textbooks (such as Introductory to Psychology), advanced journals (such as Foreign Affairs), and high-quality analysis magazines (such as The Economist), depending upon their respective field of interest.

Because of my long-term incarceration, I personally know of and communicate with some of the best and brightest prisoners, some of who are easily honorary doctorate candidates had they been provided with the proper education. They tell me that Scholars Behind Bars is a great idea and something they could only dream about.

With your help, Scholars Behind Bars will help enable prisoners to pursue their self-learning dreams despite the many barriers and challenges they face. To help Scholars Behind Bars, please contact the director, Dennis Boatwright, at 313.469.4756, or  Your contributions may help the next Malcolm X or Nelson Mandela to emerge from prison.

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