Want to rehabilitate and reintegrate prisoners into society? Offer them education.
For many former convicts, punishment extends far beyond the time they spent in prison.
A National Institute of Justice study found that 60-75% of individuals are unable to find work within the first year of being released from prison. With increased unemployment comes increased chances that they will return to their previous habits, winding up back in prison, and continuing a disturbing cycle.
Daniel Geiter knows this struggle firsthand.
In the 1980s and '90s, Geiter found himself spending years at a time in and out of prison for what he describes as "petty-theft-type crimes." He served his time, and, in 1999, set out to get his life back on track — but first, he needed a job.
"You have to background check to get a McDonald's job in Chicago, and there's no landlord in Chicago that doesn't background-check you," Geiter told Upworthy about some of his initial struggles. "In most of those instances, they discriminate against anyone having maybe an arrest, but definitely a conviction on their record."
While Geiter eventually found jobs, it wasn't until he went back to school and earned a degree that he found success and normalcy.
Geiter found that once he attained a college education — he now holds four degrees, including a doctorate in education — he was able to overcome some of the obstacles that kept him unemployed and on the verge of returning to prison.
Now, Geiter wants to provide others in similar situations with the tools they need to stay out of prison. His solution is Ward College, which opens this fall in Chicago.
Ward College has come to exist in part because of Geiter's belief that Illinois is doing a poor job of offering prisoners resources to help get them back on their feet after leaving. While the Illinois Department of Corrections offers some educational opportunities, he believes they can do much more, all while saving some money.
"Our goal is to change the understanding of life after incarceration, because it should be life after incarceration. It shouldn't be a lifetime of incarceration." — Daniel Geiter
Ward College is made up of educators, administrators, and community members that Geiter gathered together.
"My challenge to them and my hypothesis that I presented to them was that if others had the support and the mentorship that I had, then they can be just as successful, if not more than I was."
There's no escaping his criminal past, so Geiter has come to embrace it while showing he can overcome it.
Last year, he put on an orange jumpsuit, laced up his shoes, and set off to walk from Chicago to Springfield (nearly 200 miles) to protest how little the prison system does to actually rehabilitate and reintegrate former inmates back into society.
"My life is eternally wearing that orange jumpsuit," he explained. "As soon as someone does a background check on me, that's how they view me. It doesn't matter what I've accomplished. Our goal is to change the understanding of life after incarceration, because it should be life after incarceration. It shouldn't be a lifetime of incarceration."
"95% of everyone that goes to jail is going to be released," he said, making the case for more programs aimed at rehabilitating offenders.
If all goes according to plan, by this time next year, Geiter will have data about the effect programs like Ward College have on prison recidivism rates.
He hopes the state of Illinois takes notice and begins modeling its own education programs after Ward College.
Until then, he's willing to carry that load as best as he can.