Houston Chronicle: In 2019, let’s resolve to help more Americans stay out of prison for good [Opinion]

Over the course of 2018, more than 600,000 incarcerated Americans completed their sentences and were released from prison. But here’s a troubling statistic: Research indicates that within three years, more than 400,000 of them will be back behind bars.

This recidivism crisis, which sees millions of Americans cycling in and out of prison, can weaken communities and tear entire families apart. It affects all of us, putting public safety at risk and wasting millions of taxpayer dollars every year. Here in Texas the recidivism rate currently sits at 22.6 percent.

The good news is that we have the power to break this cycle in 2019. Simply providing an education to an individual while in prison makes them 43 percent less likely to become a repeat offender. New technologies have made it easier and cheaper to provide education in prison than ever before.

I’m living proof that these programs can work. I spent three years in state prisons, and I’d probably still be there today if I hadn’t been allowed to access an education.

My mother passed away when I was young, and I turned to drugs as an escape. I dropped out of high school and ultimately found myself in prison, where I was sometimes placed in solitary confinement. It was during this time that I found my faith in Jesus, who gave me the strength to turn my life around and become a better person.

While in prison I saw many of my fellow inmates using touch-screen tablets, and I asked my site director what the devices were for. She told me that they offered GED prep courses, and that I could earn a degree through an educational program called Lantern. I started the next day.

By the time I was released in 2017, I had earned a GED and begun taking college classes. I was able to get a great job as a manager at a marketing agency, and I also serve as a youth director at my local church and travel around the country telling my story.

One of the core principals of our justice system is that if you serve your time you deserve a chance to reenter society and become a productive member of the community. But that’s hard if you don’t have the skills you need to get a job.

I was fortunate to be incarcerated in a facility that made these programs available, but not everyone is so lucky. Critics in many states are trying to block the expansion of these opportunities, often arguing that giving inmates an education is a waste of taxpayer money.

The reality is that programs like Lantern generally come at no cost to taxpayers – and by reducing the rate of recidivism, they can actually prevent millions of dollars in costs associated with future incarceration. Also, by making these programs a privilege, corrections officers can incentivize good behavior and make prisons safer.

Despite all the political disagreement of the moment, the need to help people stay out of prison offers a rare source of consensus among the majority of Americans. The passage of the First Step Act will make more resources available for educational programming, but this isn’t a problem the federal government can solve on its own.

Individual states need to act as well, and elected leaders in Texas have an opportunity to lead by welcoming these technologies into even more correctional facilities. Doing so will help make 2019 the year we finally tackle the recidivism crisis, and give more people like me a real second chance.

Hopkins was released from a correctional facility in 2017, and now advocates for education and technology as a means to ease reentry for incarcerated individuals.

Houston Chronicle
By Ronald Hopkins