June 26, 2017

Trump administration “shitcans” prison education reform project


Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Last year, the Obama administration hired Amy Lopez to spearhead an ambitious program meant to overhaul the prison education system. According to Ryan J. Reilly and Julia Craven at the Huffington Post, Lopez was brought on in order to “overhaul educational programs for federal prisoners, with the hope of easing their re-entry into society and reducing recidivism.”

Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who was largely driving the prison reform initiative, said in a press release in November that the changes would “make our prisons more effective” and reduce recidivism—and therefore prevent crime—by “equipping inmates with the tools they need to successfully reenter society.” The plan also included more opportunities for inmates with learning disabilities and a pilot program in which inmates would be given customized tablets for online education.

Such noble goals just cannot stand in the Trump era, and so the Federal Bureau of Prisons fired Lopez last month. Lopez, who left a job as a prison educator in Texas to move to DC, isn’t talking yet. Reilly and Craven write that “Lopez declined to comment on [May 18], saying she needed to speak with a lawyer before she could talk to a reporter.” But Reilly and Craven heard from some people who did talk:

“They’re shitcanning it,” a person who worked on the prison reform efforts disclosed to HuffPost this week. “It’s tragic. This is really tragic.” Another person familiar with the status of the program said the initiatives had been “canned or placed on hold” covertly.

The ACLU’s Rebecca Livengood wrote earlier this month that the firing “signals a tragic departure from what had been a growing acknowledgment of the importance of education for those locked up in our nation’s prisons.”

There’s no evidence that any department other than the Bureau of Prisons was behind the firing. As in most things, Jeff Sessions (who, as attorney general, heads the Department of Justice, of which the Bureau of Prisons is a division) chooses to disagree with Obama, the ACLU, data, reason, decency, and empathy. I say “chooses to,” because, despite evidence to the contrary, he has said that programs like this did not “seem to have much benefit.”

This is the same attorney general who turned his back on the consent decrees meant to address the pervasive and tragically, dishearteningly entrenched problem of police killings of black men and women. His obviously rigorous research led him to this conclusion:

“I have not read those reports, frankly,” Sessions told the Huffington Post, “We’ve had summaries of them, and some of it was pretty anecdotal, and not so scientifically based.”

Let’s let the ACLU have the last word:

When individuals participate in any kind of educational program within a prison, their chances of future incarceration drop by 13 percent. As a result, every dollar spent on education for incarcerated people produces savings of four to five dollars in reincarceration costs.

The Trump administration’s policy is short-sighted and heartless, and it undermines the federal leadership we saw on this issue under the Obama administration. Nevertheless, of the 2.3 million people who are incarcerated in America, only 197,000 are in federal prisons. States still have an opportunity to lead on education for incarcerated young people. When the Trump administration rejects compassion and financial common sense by gutting education for incarcerated young people, it hurts all of us.


Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.