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Beyond Bars: Education opportunities give prisoners a chance to contribute positively

By Brian Wood, Beyond Bars Columnist - | Sep 24, 2018

Recently, I looked up and connected with a man named Michael Santos on LinkedIn. When I was in prison, I watched a video of Michael speaking at Stanford University. I also read a paper he wrote about education being the most effective tool in combating recidivism. Michael Santos served 26 years of a 45 year prison sentence. He was made an example of as part of the War on Drugs during the Reagan administration. He definitely became an example.

While in prison, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Mercer University and a master’s degree from Hofstra University. He wrote seven books and some articles during his stay. In 2013, he was released.

I sent a note thanking Michael for being an inspiration to me. I told him about my part in the uPrep (University Preparation) program that was created while I was in prison and how it was changing the lives of prisoners. I have said it before, and I will say it again: the uPrep program is by far the best opportunity inmates currently have in Utah. I was very proud to be a part of it.

We weren’t very organized when it first started, but we had the desire to become better people and help others. I look back at when I was teaching a Spanish class and find it pretty funny. I don’t speak Spanish, but I took the course from someone who did and that qualified me to teach it. Not really, but I tried. We all put a lot of effort into making uPrep a success. It’s come a long way since then.

Prisoners in uPrep are receiving an education and valuable skills. The things they are learning give them confidence and the ability to succeed as they reenter society. uPrep has “coding camp,” where inmates are learning computer programming, a skill that is in demand in the outside world.

At the same time though, I have unfortunate news to report. The program is recently under attack. The available student seat hours have been cut by more than half. Several courses have been completely shut down and many students are unable to take classes. uPrep operates nights and weekends in the high school in the Gunnison prison, and the powers that be have decided, “for security reasons,” only a certain and rather small number of students can be in the area during these hours.

I’m not going to get into all the reasons why I know that is a load of B.S. I will say there are forces within the system that believe the only correction the department is responsible for involves the penal aspect of the system. That’s an over-complicated way to say these people don’t like seeing prisoners have privileges or accomplish things. It’s sad, but very real.

Even with these hindrances, many prisoners will continue to fight the good fight. They will seek to become better people as part of their recompense to society. A warden shut down Michael Santos’s attempt to get a doctorate, and while those efforts did limit his educational opportunity, it didn’t stop him down his path.

I think the culture is slowly changing and America’s commitment to mass incarceration has proven to be an overall negative thing. My hope is that shift is accelerated in Utah with the opening of the new prison, and with it will bring more opportunity for prisoners to become positive, contributing members of society.


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