‘Higher education saved my life.’ Interview with Wilfredo Laracuente, former prisoner at Sing Sing Correctional Facility (New York, USA)
There are an estimated 11 million people incarcerated worldwide. The prisons that hold them are frequently overcrowded and, as a result, are unable to provide key services in accordance with international conventions. For example, education is a fundamental human right of which prisoners should not be deprived. While there are pockets of effective education provision in prisons, there is also a mismatch between the commitments listed in international declarations and agreements and the ways in which these commitments are translated into the provision of education in prison at national and local levels.
As part of its work to promote lifelong learning opportunities in prisons, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) spoke to Wilfredo Laracuente, a former prisoner who was released from the maximum-security+ Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York, USA, in 2021 after having served a 20-year sentence, to find out how education changed his life.
‘Taking up higher education in prison was the best decision in my life,’ affirms Laracuente. During his final years in Sing Sing, he participated in the facility’s educational programme, which allowed him to study and pursue a major in psychology from Mercy College, a research university based in New York. Confronted with a very different student reality – one without access to a wide array of books, a computer with internet access to search engines or a quiet space to study in – he, along with some of the other inmates enrolled in the programme, managed to successfully complete his studies. But attending higher education meant so much more than just a degree to Laracuente. ‘Studying in prison allowed me to become the best potential version of myself and think beyond the prison walls. Education is key for inmates to return to society and become a solution rather than a problem to their communities. Higher education saved my life and gave me hope,’ he says.
Laracuente is convinced that learning opportunities should be offered to all prisoners, not just with a view to their reintegration into society but also for the time spent in prison. ‘There is a study that shows that, when there is a high percentage of educational programmes available in prisons, the amount of violence within the prison walls actually goes down,’ he explains. Nevertheless, many prisons around the world are far from offering inmates continuous access to quality education at different levels.
After his release, Laracuente decided to use his experience and give back to society by working as a coordinator for the Prison Education Project at the Center for Justice at the Ivy League Columbia University in Manhattan. He is convinced of the power of education and wants to encourage others to take up educational opportunities behind bars and works to promote access to education in prison. ‘Regardless of my circumstances, I had to find sugar to make lemonade,’ he smiles. ‘And higher education became that sugar and that fuel that gave me the ability to be released, to be able to make lemonade, and to be an asset to my community!'
Enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and positioned at the heart of UNESCO’s mission, the right to education implies a right to lifelong learning. This includes providing prisoners with access to quality education from the first day of their incarceration through to and beyond the day of their release. Moreover, the Nelson Mandela Rules (UNODC, 2015) underline that prison administrations and other competent authorities should offer education to prisoners. The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) works to improve existing education in prison policies and practices that are designed to support incarcerated people’s rehabilitation and reintegration into society. As part of this work, an interview series sheds light on education in prison in different parts of the world.