Back on Track after Being Behind Bars

Student Voices

Secretary Duncan and Assistant Secretary Dann-Messier listen to previously incarcerated youth during a recent Student Voices Series. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

Returning to society after being incarcerated isn’t easy. Yet a group of formerly incarcerated youth that recently met with Secretary Arne Duncan and Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education Brenda Dann-Messier are refusing to let their past lives determine their future. They’re overcoming challenges– and building better lives for themselves through grit and resilience.

Secretary Duncan praised the youth for their perseverance and willingness to challenge the system. “Obviously there are a lot of young men and women coming up beneath you who have your talent and potential,” he said. “But they may not have your toughness to get through.”

Michael Kemp of the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) explained how his slide toward the juvenile and criminal justice system started with school suspension. Kemp said that such punishments might not be beneficial for students or society.

Brandon McMillan told Duncan and Dann-Messier that he has learned from his experience of being incarcerated and is now hoping to inspire others. He recommended that ED increase Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs. “Some people don’t want to go to college,” he said. “So automotive, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) and other vocational career program should be put back in high schools.”

Secretary Duncan agreed with McMillan’s point and said that young people should be both college and career ready and allowed to follow their career passion.

The Department of Education recently hosted a Correctional Education Summit and released a Reentry Education Model guidance document to support individuals leaving prison to successfully transition back into society through education and career advancement.

“The prison industry has job skills training programs for careers that no longer exist,” Assistant Secretary Dann-Messier said. “So we are trying to modernize that and make sure there are funds available for those incarcerated to help them be successful.”

Reverend Jesse Jackson

Reverend Jesse Jackson briefly stopped by the Student Voices discussion. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

The Department also recently announced a $1 million grant program called Promoting Reentry Success through Continuity of Educational Opportunities that will invest in innovative programs to help incarcerated individuals become productive members of society.

After hearing the youth’s seven recommendations to improve the quality of educational services for detained and incarcerated youth, Duncan welcomed Reverend Jesse Jackson—who was at ED for other meetings—to offer his encouragement to the youth.

Additional educational resources for incarcerated individuals reintegrating into society is available through the Department’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education’s Take Charge of Your Future.

De’Rell Bonner works in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach

This discussion is part of the ongoing Student Voices Series, where students engage with the Secretary of Education and senior staff to solicit and help develop recommendations on current programs and future policies. 


  1. Is there really hope for them with no rights?
    We must continue to encourage and help them, but not just saying “you can do it,” but by also hiring them and telling our friends to do the same. They need us to give them another chance. Words don’t carry as much weight as action does. Will you be one who will actually act?

  2. It was with pain, and joy that I read this article. I am a former classroom teacher who had the experience of a former student who was incarcerated. Unfortunately his ordeal caused him to served with the “Big Boy.” The taught him a lesson in there and he in turns wrote back to fellow students to let them know this is not where they want to be. The men in there actually took him up under the wings, scolling him first, but also affirming him, that he was much better than this. Isn’t it awesome how peers can reach one another.

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