Liveblog: Edward Sanders, From Prison to Paralegal

This is a liveblog taken at the University of Michigan School of Information on September 19, 2018. Any mistakes are my own.

Edward Sanders
with Kentaro Toyama
Information Alliance for Community Development

Sanders entered prison in 1975, at age 17. Convicted of first degree murder as an accessory to murder and sentenced to life.

Sanders had mentioned to his grandfather that he was going to try to make everything he could out of his time in prison. Had a third grade education going in. Had to give up the luxury of televison and radio, but saved to go to school. Started in remedial classes, then moved to GED programs. Immediately signed up for college through Macomb Community College and worked as a teacher's aide. He intentionally delayed graduation because he would have to stop taking classes after he graduated. Some prisons were more progressive than others, school was a way to get out of that environment for a while.

School wasn't intended for inmates sentenced to life. He would have to wait for someone with a lesser sentence to cancel in order to get into classes. Many inmates, including Sanders, wanted to learn more about how to defend themselves in courts.

Sanders joined the lifer law program or "lifers." It was run mostly by war veterans. Some used their GI payments to pay for attorneys to give lectures for inmates. Talked to peers who were writing their own legal documents. Many of them had been in prison multiple times due to addiction and had learned about the legal system.

Sanders looked forward to graduating with his Bachelor's degree, but had no hope of leaving to find a job. Instead he focused on helping his fellow inmates.

Kentaro asks how Sanders felt when he got out.

The first week was about getting back into society. UMich and WSU social work students worked with him. Three members of his "reentry" team brought his sisters to pick him up. The next couple days were spent getting ID, bridge card (SNAP), and registering to vote. Sanders stresses the importance of voting: "choose your own fate." The first day, his team took him out to lunch. Now he takes others out to lunch as a way to say thank you.

Sanders knew a former inmate who had gotten a law degree and passed the bar, but is not allowed to practice in Michigan. He looked at that situation to judge his own path forward.

Kentaro asks about digital technology.

In recent years, cell phones had started coming in. He says the best technology you could get in prison was a pen. They had typewriters and word processors, but they were taken away because they allowed the inmates to litigate too well. Inmates were given access to a law library after a difficult legal fight. Had computers, but no internet access. The law library was a safe haven for him.

In his first week out, his sister made him get an iPhone (now he uses an Android). He hasn't needed a dictionary since he got out of prison.

There were many challenges getting used to digital technology. Working with Kentaro Toyama and Finda Ogburu helped him overcome these challenges.

Sanders explains that the three worst institutions in society are slavery, war, and prison. They are traumatizing. There's an institutional bias built into prison. Guards don't like imates to be better educated than they are. Inmates had to "dummy down." Draws parallel to war. In war, some remain behind to get education. Education helps soldiers re-integrate into societiy. Sanders argues that it can do the same with prison. It's not easy for inmates to get jobs after being released. Now, you need to use the internet to apply to jobs. Inmates aren't allowed to get that experience.

When applying at McDonalds, he made a mistake and didn't submit the online application. He went in for the interview and they did it anyway. If he had applied online, his application would have been discarded without a human seeing it. By the time the interviewer got to asking about his felony, he'd made such an impression that he got the job.

There is a battle for computer literacy. Inamtes need it to be successful and reenter society. Anyone who has the ability to help can help reduce crime. He praises volunteers from universities who have helped him and other inmates. He explains that the real world experience also helps students gain a deeper understanding of information and improve their retention.

Audience Questions

Q: High school students are often preparing for a life among gangs. What would you tell them?

A: All of us can make decisions, but not all decisions are quality decisions. We need to learn to make quality decisions if we have the faculties to do so. He references the Koran: the worst thing is to have an ability and not use it.

Sanders ends by telling audience to make a difference, even if we've made mistakes.