More than 70 University of Michigan students and faculty members attended an interview Wednesday featuring former juvenile lifer Edward Sanders in a lecture titled “From Prison to Paralegal.” The Information Alliance for Community Development and the School of Information jointly hosted the event, which explored Sanders’ experience in prison and efforts to obtain an education, as well as his reintroduction into a technologically-focused society.
Sanders was 17 years old when he was convicted with accessory to murder and imprisoned in 1975. As the lecture, he expressed his regret for what happened that day and explained how it changed his life forever.
“I made a mistake when I was 17 years old and I recognize that someone lost their life. I didn’t pull the trigger, but I was there,” he said. “There’s no snapping my finger and getting them to come back. I know what death means.”
After spending 42 years in prison, Sanders was released on July 6, 2017. Upon entry to prison, he described his education level was at approximately third grade, which was one of the reasons he was so motivated to spend time trying to earn an undergraduate degree.
“Most of my time in prison was spent in four places: in the yard running, the inmates’ library, the school or Islamic services,” he said.
He faced several challenges getting an education as a result of the prison institution structure. Because he received a life sentence, he was not prioritized for the provided educational opportunities. He could only attend on the basis that another inmate would decide not to pursue education.
“Every time that I made an effort to go to school, it was a challenge,” Sanders said. “I would have to wait to see if someone that intended to go didn’t go. And if they decided not to go, it was my fortune.”
While he was in prison, Sanders received his associate’s degree from Jackson College in paralegal studies, as well as a bachelor’s degree from Spring Arbor University in behavioral science.
Sanders then joined a group called the Lifer Law program, where he worked with other inmates, mostly veterans, to study legal texts and pay for attorneys to come lecture. The program also gave inmates resources to go to trial, even when discouraged by their attorneys.
Sanders said being able to use and benefit from this education was significant. Though he gained 40 years of paralegal experience, the likelihood of a career or even an entry-level job in the field of law is slim for former felons.
“There’s no looking for a career, and that reality hurt. So I began to do what other inmates did before me, which is assisting my fellow inmates,” he said.
Sanders highlighted prison institutional barriers to obtaining education, such as severe limitations on technology access. The prison in which he was incarcerated had ban on typewriters — they were considered a threat to security. Later, offline computers were provided to participate in legal research, but he explained the system was still inefficient.
“There is an institutional bias that’s built into corrections,” he said. “Even though it’s called corrections, there is a bias to keep you illiterate, to keep you at a remedial level, and it takes a village to get former inmates back into society.”
When Sanders was released, he was helped by several University of Michigan and Wayne State University social work interns as well as his sisters to get a state identification card and health insurance, in addition to completing other re-entry regulatory steps. He claimed one of his proudest accomplishments since prison was registering and later voting for gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed.
“This is very important for you guys: Determine your own fate, and don’t do it just after the primary, do it so you aren’t left with someone that somebody else picked for you,” he said. “The same day I got out of prison, being there for almost 43 years, first thing I did was register to vote. And I went with Abdul.”
Sanders’ transition back into society was a difficult one, especially in terms of finding work. He was hired at McDonald’s after a successful interview, when his status as a former felon wasn’t mentioned until the end. He hopes to contribute to the field of social work or law in the future. Sanders mentioned Gov. Rick Snyder’s ban on the checkbox designating former felons on job applications as an institutional step in the right direction.
Sanders received help from the Unviersity’s Information Alliance for Community Development, which he said was essential to gaining fluency in digital work applications and general technological skills.
Rackham student Ihudiya Ogburu researches digital literacy in the School of Information, and described the effort of this organization and why she felt compelled to spearhead the program.
“I’m interested in understanding how returning citizens or people who were formerly incarcerated use technology in general, and how they go about looking for jobs in this digital society,” she said. “We just finished interviewing last week, it’s on Sundays from 2:00 to 5:00 pm, and we want to further recruit volunteers.”
Graduate student Yixian Zhou explained her interest in the transitionary period between incarceration and returning to society brought her to the lecture.
“The reason why I came here is that I’m curious about this topic — there are a few topics about how when people came from prison, and how people transition and adapt into normal life. This is a completely different life than in prison. I’m curious about that, and also how people handle mental health issues and change their thoughts and conceptions to adapt to society.”