Prison Education Saved My Life and Stopped an Environmental Cycle of Incarceration

Teaching provides me the opportunity to give back to my community and give students with a real-world perspective of how our criminal justice system does and should function.

Toward the end of my confinement, I applied to the University of Maine at Augusta and was accepted for admission with the help of teachers at the prison. I saved enough money to pay for one three-credit correspondence college-level course in psychology and earned an A at the end of the semester. This success empowered me to find other higher-ed opportunities and helped structure my parole release around attending college the following year, where I’d begin my path toward earning my Associate of Applied Science and Bachelor of Arts degrees with honors.

Despite my degrees, I still struggled to find employment due to the serious nature of my criminal convictions. I was unwilling to give up and return to my previous life because of the transformation I had undergone; I was lucky that people were also not willing to give up on me.

Frustrated with my struggles to find a job, I enrolled in a Master of Public Administration program with the Rackham School of Graduate Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn (UMD). Countless faculty members, like Dr. Tracy Hall, the first person I ever confided in about my criminal history, and others like Dr. Angela Moe and Judge Donald Shelton, gave me a chance when no one else would.

Today, I am not only employed but am a teacher myself. For the past three years, I’ve taught undergraduate and masters courses in criminology and criminal justice at the University of Michigan—Dearborn while I pursue my doctorate. Teaching provides me the opportunity to give back to my community and give students with a real-world perspective of how our criminal justice system does and should function.

None of this would have been possible had I not received an education that gave me the knowledge, confidence, work ethic and leadership skills required to overcome many of the barriers to reentry that still unfortunately meet many people when they are released from prison. It also would not have been possible without the teachers in my life, to whom I owe an enormous amount of gratitude.

Unfortunately, the beginning of my story is not unique, which is why we must work to remove barriers to reentry that begin in prison. As a starting point, states and the federal government should remove laws like the ban on Pell Grants for people in prison that restrict students’ ability to receive tuition assistance. My story should also make it clear that we have more work to do in making it easier for people to secure jobs upon their release, because people like myself deserve to be held accountable, but we also deserve a second chance so we can become productive members of our communities. I am who I am today thanks to the education I received and the teachers who provided it to me.

Related

Rethinking Restrictive Housing

The Vera Institute of Justice partnered with five prison and jail systems to assess how they use restrictive housing—also known as segregation or solitary confinement—in their facilities and to recommend ways to safely reduce that use. This report presents highlights of Vera’s findings and recommendations for ways these systems (and others motivated to reform) can reduce their use of restrictive housing and employ safe, effective alternatives. It also provides updates on the progress these systems have made to date.

Special Report
  • Léon Digard, Sara Sullivan, Elena Vanko
May 23, 2018
Special Report