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Education becomes the catch-22 of prison life

Thousands wait-listed for programs that are the key to the parole/clemency pipeline.

Governor Charlie Baker commuted Ramadan Shabazz’s life sentence for first-degree murder to second-degree murder, making him eligible for parole. Shabazz is pictured here in Bridgewater in 2020.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/file

Ramadan Shabazz has spent the last 50 of his 72 years in prison.

Back in 1971 he was a returning Vietnam vet, with what today would be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, and by his own admission strung out on LSD on the day he and a codefendant shot and killed two men in a Dorchester armed robbery gone very wrong.

Sentenced to death in 1972, Shabazz might not be here today were it not for a 1976 decision of the Supreme Judicial Court overturning the state’s death penalty law.

Last week Governor Charlie Baker commuted Shabazz’s life sentence for first-degree murder to second-degree murder, making him eligible for parole, assuming the commutation is approved by the Governor’s Council.


“Mr. Shabazz’s crime was horrific, but he has not only taken full responsibility for his actions but has also dedicated his life in prison to bettering himself and serving as a mentor to others in prison,” Baker said in a statement. “Commutation serves as a strong motivation for an incarcerated individual to improve themselves, and Mr. Shabazz serves as a remarkable example of self-development for other incarcerated individuals.”

Indeed, commutation does provide strong motivation for those genuinely committed to turning their lives around while in prison. But three serious impediments stand in the way — the unwillingness of governors here to make greater use of their clemency powers, the fact that unlike some other states Massachusetts does not have broad age-related guidelines for making inmates parole eligible, and the lack of in-prison programming, which is a prerequisite for any inmate to get into that commutation/parole pipeline.

Shabazz is only the third commutation to be recommended by Baker and only the fourth to be recommended in this state since 1997. Baker proposed commutations earlier this year for Thomas Koonce and William Allen, each of whom had served some 30 years in prison. Both are now free and back in the community.


Other states — California is a prime example — have developed more extensive clemency guidelines that give priority to those convicted of crimes committed when they were age 20 or younger and to those age 50 and up who have served 25 years or more.

The Massachusetts Bar Association Clemency Task Force, which issued a report in 2021 calling clemency “an under-utilized tool” in addressing “systemic failures,” is expected to update its report and its recommendations for the incoming Maura Healey administration.

But absent systemic reform of the clemency process itself, the one critical element without which no inmate has any shot at parole or commutation is the ability to get into the kind of rehabilitative and educational programs that men like Shabazz and Koonce and Allen were able to access during their years behind bars.

Shabazz participated in 54 programs, including addiction treatment and anger management, and he also earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees through Boston University’s prison education program. His master’s thesis was on incarcerated Vietnam vets.

Over the course of 50 years, Shabazz made good use of his time in a variety of ways. But for many in Department of Correction custody the opportunities are far fewer than they should be.

As of Sept. 1, only some 15 percent of DOC inmates were enrolled in educational programs, while thousands remain on a wait-list, according to a letter from DOC in response to a freedom of information request filed by a prisoners’ rights advocate.


Of the 5,431 individuals in DOC facilities at the time, 843 were enrolled in educational programs, some with multiple enrollments in college courses, others in vocational programs. But another 3,170 individuals were on wait-lists for those programs.

Educational programs — or lack thereof — are expected to be on a long list of lines of inquiry at an oversight hearing on the DOC scheduled for December by the cochairs of the Joint Judiciary Committee, state Representative Michael Day and state Senator Jamie Eldridge. The hearing will focus on implementation of the landmark Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018 — a law which included, among other things, a provision that DOC provide programming leading to a high school equivalency certificate for those who did not have one.

For many of those incarcerated, educational programs are the catch-22 of prison life. They are essential to getting into that parole/clemency pipeline that can lead to an eventual way out of prison. But if those programs are so essential, lawmakers — and the next administration — must surely ask why are they in such short supply?

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.