Inmates Helping Inmates

By STAN STOJKOVIC  Image courtesy twitter.com

MILWAUKEE — IT’S the singular guest at a prison who receives a standing ovation from inmates. I’ve heard of only two: Johnny Cash and Percy Pitzer, a retired warden who in 2012 started a nonprofit corporation to award college scholarships to children of inmates.

I sit on the board of Mr. Pitzer’s group, called the Creative Corrections Education Foundation. I recently went with him to visit some of the inmates at the Milwaukee County House of Correction. It was morning and many were still on their thin mattresses — sleeping, reading, crocheting, playing cards — as he began a day of speeches.

He started in H6, a 60-bed women’s dorm. “Good morning, ladies. I’m Percy Pitzer, from Beaumont, Texas,” he began. He told them that he had made a living for his family by working for the Bureau of Prisons, and that he and his wife wanted to give back. So he’d kick-started a scholarship fund with $150,000 of his own money. But he wanted it to become an inmate-funded venture, and said it would not work without their help.

“Will you help me with the price of a candy bar a month?” he asked.

His audience probably had a sense of the odds working against their children. Close to seven million children in the United States have a parent involved in some form of correctional intervention — jail, prison, probation or parole. More than two million have parents behind bars. The impact is largely focused on minority communities. Families of inmates are left with very little on which to survive, and so the cycle of poverty and crime goes unbroken. According to the American Correctional Association, up to 50 percent of incarcerated juveniles have an incarcerated parent.

Like anyone, these parents want something better for their kids. The inmates in Milwaukee proved that when they were asked to contribute to the education of other people’s children.

“I will,” one inmate said.

“I will,” said another.

“I will.”

Strolling up and down the aisles of steel bunk beds, Mr. Pitzer handed a form to anyone interested, to fill in her name, booking number, dorm/bed number, the date and the amount she agreed to have taken out of her personally funded commissary account. In all, 13 women in H6 donated $41; one signed up to donate $5 per month.

This is a lot of money for most inmates at the Milwaukee County House of Correction. There, the prisoners — 80 percent of whom are below the poverty level — are not paid for their work mopping halls, cutting grass and performing the many menial tasks that keep the facility operating. At some correctional facilities, inmates earn $10 a day. Either way, this is money that would otherwise go to small luxuries, like snacks and deodorant.

And yet about 300 inmates in Texas, New Mexico, Ohio and Wisconsin have donated. Thanks to that money, in addition to private contributions, by the end of this year Creative Corrections will have awarded 40 $1,000 college scholarships. If just 25 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million inmates donated one dollar a month, the foundation could award $7.2 million annually in scholarships.

(Scholarship recipients must have a parent or legal guardian who is currently incarcerated, on parole or under community supervision. And the funds are transferred directly to the bursar’s office of a college or university, which must be accredited.)

Before he left H6, Mr. Pitzer thanked the women, and they thanked him:

“Thank you for taking the time to come down.”

“Where can my child find information about this?”

“When I get out, can I volunteer for you?”

Then, accompanied by two guards, he walked down the cinder-block hallways to B6, where one male inmate donated 12 cents, another 37. So far, the inmate donations from that facility total $866, with $75.48 pledged monthly. Next year, Mr. Pitzer will step up the pace, petitioning former corrections colleagues to allow him to visit, and persuading colleges and universities to partner with him.

Education will not solve our many social ills, but it is one of the best ways to keep future generations out of the criminal justice system. The scholarship plan is built on this, and the perhaps surprising fact that many inmates want to be part of the solution.

Our system of mass incarceration is a tragedy. But what is even sadder is when we equate imprisonment with being adrift from society’s challenges. Just because people are in prison does not mean they are incapable of doing good and supporting their families and communities. Perhaps the greatest benefit of Mr. Pitzer’s program is that it lets prisoners prove that they want to and can make meaningful contributions to society.

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Stan Stojkovic is the dean of the school of social welfare at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

(This article is reprinted here by the kind permission of the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee)