Clemency and Prison Education Benefits Everyone

Giving people in prisons the ability to learn more about the world outside—and the hope that they can reenter it—can pay extraordinary dividends.
May 14, 2024
Gregory Mingo was granted clemency in 2021 after spending more than 40 years incarcerated in New York State. He now works on clemency applications for others with CUNY Law School and The Second Look Project.

While I applaud New York Governor Kathy Hochul for transitioning to a system of granting clemency on an ongoing basis, rather than just once at the end of each year, I would like to challenge our governor and representatives to see the advantages of going further during this legislative session. We need to do more to expand clemency—both pardons and commuted sentences—for the benefits it provides for everyone, not only for incarcerated people themselves, but for their families and communities, as well as for state budgets and society.

The United States metes out some of the longest prison sentences in the world. Here, we unconscionably sentence teenagers to life in prison. We allow people in their older years, including those who are critically ill, to remain in prison long past the time they could pose any threat to others.

One of the most powerful things increasing clemency grants will do for people who are incarcerated is inspire hope and motivate them to pursue life-affirming goals, such as higher education. College helps answer the questions we all have about life and our place in it. Through education, people—including those incarcerated—can develop tools to succeed along with an emotionally mature attitude.

Prison education programs are a major way that people serving long sentences can demonstrate growth and change. Educational opportunities and the hope for clemency improve the prison environment. They turn dangerous prisons into safer ones and better prepare people for life after release. Moreover, the educational achievements and the degrees students earn give the public confidence that incarcerated people are ready to return home.

Education and the realistic prospect of clemency also help the families of those who are incarcerated. According to the Office of Children and Family Services, there are approximately 105,000 children in New York State alone who have a parent serving time in prison or jail. When incarcerated people in prison education programs complete college, their children are more likely to attend and finish school as well. And, once released, formerly incarcerated people resume caring for children and elders. Those who have earned degrees serve as powerful role models for their family members.

Similarly, formerly incarcerated people often rejoin their communities in valuable roles. Professionally, they become substance use counselors, mental health advocates, and violence interrupters. With a degree from a prison education program, they are more likely to get better-paid employment and are less likely to reenter prison. Informally, those who have been granted clemency are credible and candid messengers because they have walked the same streets. They have the greatest opportunity to redirect those who may be in danger of incarceration. In this way, clemency enhances public safety.

Financially, incarceration costs New York nearly $70,000 per year per incarcerated person in state prison. Nearly 8,000 incarcerated people in New York state prison are 50 years old or older. Beyond reforming through education, studies show that most people age out of criminal activity. And people aging in prison, who are no threat to others, are among the costliest to keep imprisoned. Reducing needlessly long sentences for those who are 50 years old or older would save the state more than $66,000 each year per aging person released and allow investment in public health and other programs to prevent incarceration.

It is for these reasons that I urge the governor to continue working toward increasing grants of clemency, pardons, and commuted sentences, and request that elected officials take up and pass the Elder Parole bill, the Fair and Timely Parole bill, and the Second Look Act. The Elder Parole bill proposes reevaluating sentences for incarcerated persons who are 55 and older and who have served 15 years or more. The Fair and Timely Parole bill instructs the parole board to judge people holistically for who they are today, including whether they currently present an unreasonable risk to public safety. And the Second Look Act would allow people to apply for resentencing after 10 years of incarceration and gives judges the discretion to reduce a sentence in the interests of justice.

New York’s elected leaders must also make parole boards more representative of people well-qualified to judge a person’s ability to resume their life and work and engage with their community, such as social workers and people who understand that, as a society, we should be uplifting formerly incarcerated individuals. We should give parole boards time to holistically judge people for who they are today, as proposed in the Fair and Timely Parole bill.

Finally, we should look for new ways to support incarcerated individuals in their quest for higher learning by expanding the opportunities and time incarcerated students have to pursue their studies.

There are more than 30,000 people in New York State prisons. Many have learned so much and have so much to offer and want to give back to their communities. Others have the unrealized capacity to improve themselves. The most compelling reason to shorten sentences and increase educational opportunities is to stop the vast human potential going needlessly to waste. By working toward the passage of these three bills and supporting prison education, we can reunite families and rebuild safer and stronger communities, which benefits everyone.

Gregory Mingo served more than 40 years in prison. He earned a college degree through Bennington College’s Prison Education Initiative at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, NY, and was granted clemency in 2021. In addition to caring for his family and his community, he works as a community leader for Releasing Aging People in Prison. He works with Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison. He works on clemency applications for others in conjunction with CUNY Law School, The Second Look Project, and as an advocate for increased clemency through The Clemency Collective, a project created by more than a dozen people who were convicted of serious crimes, who were granted clemency, and who are now making a positive difference in the world.

Vera believes in using our platforms to elevate diverse voices and opinions, including those of people currently and formerly incarcerated. Other than Vera employees, contributors speak for themselves. Vera has not independently verified the statements made in this post.