BY: The Exoneration Project

Graduation

May marks the beginning of one of my favorite times of the year: graduation season. Earlier this month, I had the honor of attending the Chicago Scholars College Choice Celebration. A night in which high school seniors from all around the city come together with their  Chicago Scholarsmentors, friends and families, to announce the colleges they have selected to attend in the fall.   The majority of these students are students of color, low-income, first-generation or all three.   It is a night filled with tears of joy, excitement, and pride as these students prepare to take the next steps in pursuing higher education and representing Chicago at our nation’s elite institutions.

I am so proud of my mentees and the colleges they have selected. But, I couldn’t help going through that night without heavily thinking about our clients.  Like the students of Chicago Scholars, most of our clients are people of color.  Like the students of Chicago Scholars, many of our clients come from low income backgrounds. Like the students of Chicago Scholars, many of our clients would have been first-generation college students had they received the opportunity to attend. Like the students of Chicago Scholars, many of our clients fit into all three categories and were around the same age when their lives were changed forever by a wrongful conviction. Instead of representing their communities within the ivy-covered walls of a university they have to do it within the concrete confines of a prison.

It saddens me, but mostly angers me that this opportunity was stolen from so many and that we invest more in locking up our people rather than empowering them. A few examples:

  • Stateville Correctional Center (Minimum Security Prison in Illinois)

Annual Cost Per Inmate: $29,691

  • University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Tuition & Fees: $15,630-$36,256

  • Ohio Average Annual Cost Per Inmate: $25,814
  • The Ohio State University

Tuition & Fees: $10,037-$27,365

  • California Average Annual Cost  Per Inmate: $47,421
  • University of California, Los Angeles

Tuition & Fees: $12,816 (CA residents)

I know that tuition and fees are not the only costs associated with higher education, but imagine the possibilities! In talking to some of our clients, I see lawyers, chefs, artists, writers, teachers, entrepreneurs—people that are passionate about helping others and making this world a better place.

I also know that our innocent clients are not the only people currently in prison. This world is not perfect, and crimes do happen.  But imagine if we also invested more in the communities and organizations that help raise our youth. If we gave Chicago Scholars or programs like the ones Eva mentions here as much funding and valued them as much as our nation values the idea that prisons equal justice, I wonder how many more faculty members we would be adding to our universities rather than guards to our departments of corrections.