Second chances are important to those who’ve been incarcerated. Almost every day, I hear about someone who got out of prison and is leading a productive life. Take for example, Shon Hopwood. He started out as an Illinois bank robber and then while incarcerated, made the decision to change, and after he found himself cleaning the law library, studied law behind bars. He soon became the go-to jailhouse lawyer, and journalist Adam Liptak publicized his work when Hopwood was released. Hopwood earned his undergraduate degree, and won a full ride to study law from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He graduated last spring from the University of Washington Law School. He now works as a clerk for the DC Circuit Court, and will begin a two year fellowship soon at Georgetown University. He married a longtime sweetheart along the way and wants to continue to help others. I’d call that success.
Karter Reed, whom I met in 2007 and am writing a book about, is another young man who made serious mistakes when he was young and is making the most of his second chance. Reed killed a boy in a high school classroom when he was sixteen-years-old, and went to prison for second-degree murder. He ended up serving almost twenty years, but changed his life and attitudes behind bars. He only earned three disciplinary reports in his time in prison, read books, took classes, wrote up a storm, and participated in every prison program possible to better himself. He also learned law behind bars. By the time he got out of prison in 2013, on lifetime parole, Reed had developed the kind of character necessary to thrive and not just survive. He was determined to go to college, and eventually, to become a sociologist. In the two years since his release, he has completed what takes others three years at a local community college, and will be graduating in May with a 4.0 average. Then he hopes to continue his studies.
Unlike Shon Hopwood, Karter Reed has no one fending off his financial burdens. Reed works full time at UPS in Worcester, Massachusetts, from wee hours in the morning to mid day, has a girlfriend, and together, they have managed to save up enough money to put a down payment on a house. He spends time with his family who live all across the state. This, I’d also call success; and most people would be hard pressed to say Reed is not a productive citizen.
This year, Reed was asked by his college—Quinsigimond Community College—to join Phi Theta Kappa (P.T.K.), an honor society whose expressed purpose stated on their website is “to recognize and encourage scholarship among two-year college students.” Quinsig, as it is called, requires a 3.5 average for membership, and acknowledges that “this membership can have far reaching impacts when it comes to transferring to a four year institution and even for prospective employers.” I spoke at a P.T.K. event at my college a few years ago, and for the honorees, it was a singular recognition, even better than graduation. Everyone (including me) was thrilled to get their own gold.
But imagine Reed’s surprise when he received the application which said “A person currently incarcerated is not eligible for membership. A person convicted of a felony crime or any crime whose potential sentence is more than one year is not eligible for membership until three years following completion.” Reed had glowing recommendations from professors, and let’s be honest, you can’t get higher than a 4.0 average, but Reed was deemed unworthy. Ironic. Not only was he two years out from his time behind bars instead of three, but he had worked doubly hard to complete courses in those two years, earning the highest possible grades. P.T.K. adds another twist that would make Karter ineligible: the applicant must complete “all conditions of sentencing, including probation.”
Research has shown that for people coming out of prison, it is far better to be supervised, on parole or probation, if an officer gives the person guidance and not merely rules. People wrapping up sentences and exiting directly from prison without supervision have more chance of recidivating. And that’s just fact. But P.T.K. has not done its research, to say the least.
I argued with Reed that a 4.0 average should be enough to get him into an honor society, but he disagreed. In an interview, Reed said how he had no objections to Phi Theta Kappa requiring, as they do, applicants who adhered to what they call “moral standards of the society.” He objects to how such “decency” is measured. Certainly, said Reed, an incarcerated person needs honor society recognition, perhaps even more than others on the outside. What if they’ve had no disciplinary reports for the past five years? Why judge the person on what they did twenty years ago? And he said, it is even more impressive if someone is a “morally upright person in a hostile negative environment.” Reed added, “Let’s look at your conduct now and not how your conduct was one day in 1993″—in his case, twenty-two years ago.
Interestingly, Melissa Mayer, spokesperson for Phi Theta Kappa sent me this statement in lieu of an interview with anyone from the organization. In spite of what it says on their website and application forms, Mayer wrote in an email that they had changed the policy recently. It now reads, she claimed: “Students eligible for membership in Phi Theta Kappa include those who have been convicted of felony crimes following completion of all conditions of sentencing, including probation. Possession of recognized qualities of citizenship is a requirement for membership.”
This new statement is problematic in many obvious ways. It certainly won’t help the thousands of excellent students behind bars or in the free world, on probation or on parole. And that includes Karter Reed. Talk about Catch 22.
The final irony of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society debacle is that, according to a March 15, 2015 article in Inside Higher Ed, its Executive Director and C.E.O., Rod Risley, is currently being investigated for a sexual harassment claim from two female students. While Risley fully disputes the claims, Inside Higher Ed reported: “Rachel Reeck, 23, and Toni Marek, 36, served as P.T.K. student international officers in the 2013-14 school year. They say that during that time they experienced sexual harassment, intimidation, inappropriate touching and unprofessional behavior by Risley.”
The investigation is ongoing, and as troublesome as it is, perhaps P.T.K. could learn from this. What really determines moral character? And if you are going to wade in that pool, you had best be squeaky clean.
But, whether we live in society or behind bars, if we earn a 4.0 average in all our community college classes, and have been as much a model a citizen as anyone else, for three or five years—you decide— shouldn’t we be at least eligible for the Phi Theta Kappa honor society? If we say people deserve second chances, we need to truly dispense them and not pretend when we give them the illusion of opportunity.