Dec 13, 2009

On the Power of Consistency and Discipline

by Kate Krontiris, Master in Public Policy Candidate, Harvard Kennedy School of Government

This week, we had a chance to talk with Andres Idarraga, who is a second-year law student at Yale Law School. Mr. Idarraga has a unique story: while spending six-and-a-half years in prison for selling drugs, he began to read voraciously, eventually tutoring other students in GED courses, and completing some college courses by correspondence. After some time at the University of Rhode Island upon release, Mr. Idarraga was accepted to Brown University, where he completed his Bachelor’s degree. Just before he takes his final exams this semester, Mr. Idarraga made time to share his story with Rethinking Reentry.

1. Tell us a little bit about what you are pursuing now -- what do you hope to do when you graduate from Yale Law School?

Right now, I’m taking law classes in administrative law, federal income tax law, and business organizations, and I am a student member of the education adequacy law clinic. I’m also teaching constitutional law to 11th and 12th graders at a local high school. Next semester, I will join the school’s community and economic development clinic.

The two areas that really interest me are education and community economic development. Last summer, I interned at the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, where I worked mostly on education cases. I worked on a case where a private for-profit corporation was delivering alternative education services to students who had been kicked out of their home schools. There were several problems with how this model was functioning, resulting in violations of students’ legal rights. At the education clinic at Yale, we are working on an education suit against the State of Connecticut, which alleges that the way Connecticut funds its public schools does not meet the state’s constitutional requirements. There has been a huge legal battle over the interpretation of states’ right–to-education clauses throughout the country. The way that states interpret these clauses affects the way they fund education. We allege that Connecticut’s funding formula fails to provide poor students with an “adequate and equal education” as required by the state constitution.

In the economic development realm, I plan to help homeowners deal with mortgage foreclosures and the collapse of the housing market. The community and economic development clinic also provides legal services to smaller not well-financed entrepreneurs. At the structural level, I’m interested in the delivery of government programs to distressed community. For example, once an economic development program is in place, how do we ensure that it reaches the right people?

In terms of personal goals, I want to bring the culture of education to my own family, particularly my younger brother, nephew and cousins. I hope to normalize education within my own family. I am the first in my family to graduate from high school and college, and to go on to graduate school. But I do not want to be the only one. I think it’s important to make stories of success the norm and this begins within my family unit. At the same time, I hope to play a role in delivering effective educational services to disadvantaged communities.

2. What made you the type of person to take adversity and turn it around? Do you feel you have some special qualities or experiences that make you an exception, or do you think more guys and gals in prison would do the same if they could?

I do not believe I have any special qualities. I think that more people could do it and should do it. Growing up, I had friends and family members going in and out of prison – when it first happened to me, in the circumstances I grew up in, I thought that it was the norm. But when I was first sent to a maximum-security prison, and I saw many young kids doing life sentences, I thought, “Wow, this could be me or my younger brother spending the rest of our lives in prison.” This was when the reality of the situation hit me. The system doesn’t really care who they put away – nor should they. It is there to deal with the consequences of criminal actions and to punish people for them. But to be around so many young people doing very long prison sentences really shocked me. Unlike them, I was going to be able to go home again – and that sparked me to say, “I have this second chance. What am I going to do with it?”

Although I was raised by my mother, it was my father who brought us to this country. My parents grew up really poor in rural Colombia. My dad looked at the U.S. with that immigrant gaze, thinking that when he got here, it would be the land of great opportunity. My dad had no education, and he made great sacrifices. My mother also worked hard to provide for my brother and me. As much as my parents struggled to provide a better life for me, their reward was seeing me in prison. I felt like I owed a debt to them. I recognized the struggles my family made for me.

One thing that happened by chance was that I became a GED tutor for other students in prison and I discovered that I loved teaching other students. I loved explaining things to them. As I developed a passion for helping others to further their education, I also developed a hunger to continuously learn more things for myself. I ate up every book in the library and through those books, I began to envision myself as something different. From that point, things changed. I took college classes while I was still incarcerated. However, I was by no means the most talented person in prison. There were and are many other people in prison who could and should do it.

A personal advantage I had was that, even though my mom did not have any money and struggled in many ways, she supported me tremendously while I was in prison. I knew that my home situation was better than a lot of the guys and that gave me a distinct advantage. When a person does not have a stable foundation, he or she can’t take the next steps.

One last thing I want to emphasize is that while I was teaching and reading, I internalized, very deeply, a framework that was almost delusional at the time. This was that a person can accomplish absolutely anything, regardless of the circumstances, if he or she works hard enough. I remember applying to Brown University from my prison cell and the guards would see my mail with “Brown University” on it. They would look at me like, “This kid is delusional. What is he thinking?” But I had this firm belief that I was talented and I could get into college if I applied myself. I think many people who have grown up in disadvantaged circumstances have developed an ingrained, perverted mentality that they can’t do something, or that they can’t have certain experiences because they are reserved for more privileged people.

2. So many people in prison are illiterate. Are there ways that you think even the lowest-level learners could be encouraged to pursue their education?

That is an interesting, much harder question for me. When a person begins at such a disadvantage, how does that person map out a 10,000-mile journey concretely and systematically? You have to be able to answer the questions that person maybe asking himself: what are the greatest obstacles and what are the rewards of learning to read? When that person is able to see the whole process, or see people who have been through it, it gives him a wider vision and a roadmap, something different from “I’m too far back to even try.”

I have several friends who have come home from prison and are now pursuing college or vocational programs. They may have initially taken some classes in prison just to kill time, but when they saw me achieve something concrete by going on to college once released, they realized the possible significance of their daily actions. So instead of working aimlessly and taking classes just to kill time, the goal at the end of the journey became more concrete for them.

People beginning at a lower level have a longer journey. It must be explained to them what the good parts and the difficult parts of the journey will be and they must be assisted in coming up with their end-goals. For this, they should be asked what they want to accomplish by learning to read or, even more generally, what they want to accomplish when they come home. The goal is to get them to firmly realize the benefits of learning to read.

3. What advice do you have for policymakers around prison education? How would you suggest the discharge process be adjusted to support the educational goals of persons leaving prison?

Personally, I didn’t have any institutional support from the prison to pursue my educational goals when I was getting out. It’s funny -- I learned about applying to college and applying for financial aid from a USA Today article that described both processes step-by-step. There were 10 to 15 steps and I followed them all. It was like, “Step 1: Figure out where you want to go and write them a letter asking for a brochure. Step 2: Apply for FAFSA, etc.”

So, for people leaving prison, it could be as simple as providing them with a step-by-step guide, especially about financial aid for college. There are federal programs available that will provide funds for low-income people that want to pursue their education. Pell Grants provide free money to go to college. Many people in prison don’t know about this, and even prisoner reentry non-profit groups don’t know enough about it. Some people think that, because they have a criminal conviction, they are barred from any federal money for school. True, they might have to jump through more hoops, but it’s not impossible. Maybe another idea is for teachers in prison to identify students who have expressed an interest in going to college and then provide those students with classes about the process.

I think the broader prison education policy point is that prison education pays for itself in abundance. You can look at the recidivism rates or the successes of people who have accomplished getting their education. The Bard Prison Initiative is one great program that comes to mind, where Bard professors go into prisons and actually grant degrees for the courses that students take. [Click here for a 60 Minutes segment on the Bard Prison Initiative.] But it is hard for the public, especially in tough economic times, to swallow the bitter pill of seeing education services go to a population that is stigmatized as not deserving of a publicly-funded education. Still, we need to have a communal dialogue with the public about this issue. Delivering educational services to prisoners could potentially make a big dent in incarceration costs.

4. Who in your life encouraged you on this path? It is rare that someone just does this without the mentoring or support of some key person(s) in their life. How did you develop and nurture the relationships you made along the way?

To name one person would be unfair – it was so many people. However, nobody comes to your help unless you are willing to help yourself first. As soon as you show that you are hungry for a better life, people are more than willing to help out.

Back in junior high and high school, when I was doing well, I had a lot of teachers who gave me great advice. I wasn’t able to appreciate their efforts then, but I was able to reflect on them when I was in prison.

In prison, when I started thinking about applying to college, an old friend from high school would type up my handwritten letters for me and research whatever I needed on the internet. At the University of Rhode Island, a professor encouraged me to apply to Brown and helped me with the process.

When I applied to law school, the director of the prison system (himself a Yale Law graduate) became a huge supporter. I also developed a friendship with a law professor who had grown up in my neighborhood. He was someone who had grown up in troubled circumstances, but made it to the local community college. He transferred to a four-year college and ended up graduating from Harvard Law. He helps me with the books I need for law school. I am blessed to have a community of people who have extended their hands to help me on this journey.

In general, people sometimes may be reluctant to help out a formerly incarcerated individual because they may have misgivings about that person. They think they may be taking a chance. Therefore, the ex-felon must be willing to take the first step by showing any potential allies what they have done before reaching out for assistance. By showing initiative, the formerly incarcerated can build the credibility and trust needed to secure support from others.

For the formerly incarcerated, they can’t take any initial rejection as a value judgment made on their character. People may not be making such a judgment, but may feel they are taking a chance in the unknown by supporting an ex-felon. We need to understand their point of view and to allay their concerns.

One last thing I want to re-emphasize is the power of small, consistent, disciplined steps. Creating the big picture in your mind and believing it will materialize, all the while taking the concerted daily actions necessary to make it so, is very powerful. Consistency and discipline make up for many, many things in our lives.

Photo credit Brown University/John Abromowski.