Xavier McElrath-Bey spent thirteen years in the Illinois Department of Corrections as an accomplice to gang murder. He was thirteen when he was locked up. Few people would argue that McElrath-Bey should have gotten out scot-free. If accomplices to murder do not deserve jail time, then what kind of criminals do?
To many, this is where the story ends. By locking up McElrath-Bey, the murder victim is vindicated. The case is closed, the villain is locked away, and the story has a happy and fulfilling ending. However, the truth is more complicated. McElrath-Bey will not be in prison for his entire life—he will be released when he is twenty-six. What sort of person do we want McElrath-Bey to be when he walks out into society?
Most inmates spend their time engaging in mindless prison labor. They do not have the opportunity to learn or further their job skills. Recently released prisoners are unable to find jobs or take advantage of public benefits, such as food stamps and public housing. Is it any wonder that over 40% of offenders return to prison within three years? (Pew Center on the States) As Take Part eloquently states, America not only locks people up, but “[throws] away the keys—the keys, that is, to rehabilitation and reintegrating to free society.”
Prison education programs are a great investment. According to Take Part, every dollar in higher education programs sees an 18 dollar investment. McElrath-Bey earned an advanced degree in counseling and human services from Roosevelt University (he also had a 4.0 GPA with his bachelors degree in social sciences). Now McElrath-Bey works with Northwestern University to advocate for mental health treatment for juvenile delinquents.
We can’t just lock up criminals and forget about them. What kind of people do we want to reintegrate to free society?