Ex-offenders face incredible odds against shaking their past

Published in The News Tribune, May 9, 2012

If his warm greeting as you enter the downtown YMCA doesn’t get your attention, his story will.

Mychal Goode is an ambitious, smart and personable young man.  Like thousands of others around the state, he’s counting the days until he walks across the stage that marks the completion of his college career.  In his case he’ll have earned a bachelor’s in Business Administration from the University of Washington Tacoma.

Mychal (pronounced Michael) seems pretty typical – a full-time student holding down a full-time job at the Y, looking forward to the future.  We see a lot of students like that at UWT.

Despite an incredibly upbeat and cheerful nature, though, Mychal’s past makes his future uncertain.  It’s there in his past that he’s not at all your typical 26-year old.

Nine years ago he committed a senseless crime he now deeply regrets; Mychal spent four years in prison because of it.

It was there of all places that Mychal first aspired to a college education.  Convicted at the young age of 17, he had to take GED classes.  Unlike most, he stuck it out.  Two years later while doing his best to keep his head down and stay out of harm’s way, he heard an advisor tell a roomful of prisoners that once released, they could enroll in college.  That was the first and only time during his years in prison that anyone mentioned college as a possibility.

From then on, Mychal held tight to a dream of college.  Once released, he enrolled at Tacoma Community College; he’s now on the verge of becoming the first college-educated member of his family.

This bare outline of Mychal’s story provides many lessons, but I’ll focus on one:  how hard it is to do what Mychal did.   He entered prison a few weeks past his 18th birthday, the product of an isolated family life, an educational system that looked the other way when at age 14 he essentially dropped out, and a community lacking male role models.  During four years in prison he drifted even farther from the mainstream, re-emerging into a society that had left him behind.

Mychal was lucky.  In addition to being intelligent and charismatic, he met employers (like those at the Y) more interested in his future than his past, who have helped him prove that he was something other than a felon.

Now he’s a model citizen.  Yet despite this, Mychal can’t shake his past.  Still feeling a debt, he’d like to join the military.  But few felons can surmount the barriers the armed forces put in front of them.   He’d like to attend law school.  There too he faces obstacles related to his past.

Mychal is beating incredibly long odds.  There’s a lot more we could do to help people like Mychal, though.  And in fact, it’s imperative that we do.  In Washington State we spend $50,000 per year for every inmate we incarcerate.  Nationwide, a stunning 70 percent of the half-million inmates released each year wind up back in jail.  With such costs, we should do more than simply hope for lower rates of recidivism; we should insist on it.

Education can play a key role, as research shows that it reduces the rate at which former prisoners return.  The Washington State Institute for Public Policy recently concluded that prison educational programs are one important way of reducing our state’s high and rapidly growing correctional costs.

Strapped for money, though, many states have been shortsightedly cutting “extras” and providing prisoners with few meaningful educational opportunities.  When inmates leave, they find themselves marginalized from a rapidly changing society and even more rapidly changing labor markets.

Almost all ex-prisoners re-enter society down by three strikes:  they lack education and a recent employment history, and many jobs are (officially or unofficially) unavailable to them.  When few behind-the-wall educational opportunities are coupled with very limited prospects upon re-entry, it’s no surprise that so many wind up back in prison.

Mychal Goode won’t be one of those, though.  He can take pride in his remarkable accomplishments.  For us to share in that pride, we must do a lot more to make sure all former inmates have a shot at getting the second chance that Mychal made sure he had.