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Learning to Live

For incarcerated people, prison education programs can offer not only knowledge but also hope that a different future is possible.


The pursuit of knowledge has sustained me throughout my incarceration. In an attempt to cope with the gravity of my prison sentence, I sought to educate myself. I spent hours in my cell rediscovering my love of books. However, the more I read, the more I began to feel cheated. I felt cheated by the public school system; I felt cheated by society; but most of all, I felt cheated by myself.

Realizing how much I didn’t know about life, the world, and society stirred a desire for more knowledge. I studied subjects ranging from philosophy, sociology, and history to science and religion. I familiarized myself with great thinkers from Angela Y. Davis to Voltaire. Each book led me to a number of other books as I sought to satiate my hunger for knowledge. This cycle became the basis of my existence in prison; I lived to learn. Although this pattern enriched my understanding, it also became an escape from the regret I carried as the result of the poor decisions that led me to prison.

This feeling of regret, however, became the motivation for the aspiration that led me to apply to the Emerson Prison Initiative (EPI), through which I could earn a bachelors from Emerson College while incarcerated. In my mind, the program represented a step in the direction of rehabilitation and self-actualization. Like many incarcerated people, I knew that my sentence meant that society had given up on me, but pursuing education offered me the rare experience of feeling like society was investing in me. While I enjoyed my hours of reading in solitude and assuming the role of autodidact, I was cognizant of the advantages of a college education. In addition to the tutelage of experts and the benefit of diverse perspectives that a classroom provides, a college education is a pathway back into society.

From time to time, when pausing from my studies, I am struck by the similarities between my cell and the college dorm I occupied nearly twenty years ago. In 2001 I was living in a freshman dorm at a Massachusetts college. Like my old dorm room, the walls of my cell in prison are constructed of cinder block walls painted a dull white, only now in the cell the blocks are more constricting. I am also reminded of my previous experience in college by the long distance from home and my dietary dependence on a hot pot and ramen noodles. Though there are not many likenesses between college and prison beyond this point, these similarities have been enough to create a sense of nostalgic remorse. My experience as an incarcerated college student has allowed me to reexamine my past through a broader lens.

When I arrived at college I felt out of place. Beyond the geographic and demographic differences between Western Massachusetts and my native neighborhood in Boston, I realized that I was beginning my college journey behind my peers academically. Being the only student not to raise his hand when professors would ask if the class had read a certain book only reinforced my belief that my peers were better prepared to succeed in the realm of higher education. I was further convinced of this when I recognized that most of my peers had majors in mind, if not declared, and life paths planned out. Although I was capable of doing the work with little difficulty, I continued to feel out of place.

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Even as I maintained confidence in my ability to overcome any academic hurdles, I struggled to adapt to my new environment. I was far from home and unsure about where I was going. On top of that, I was weary from unpleasant exchanges with the bursar’s office concerning finances like grants and loans. I was struggling to see the benefits of my academic journey, but the challenges were clear to me. Of course, this struggle would pale in comparison with my struggle to adapt to life behind bars. Yet both experiences are tied together by the role education has played in my life. My first college experience was marred by a feeling of alienation that blinded me to the educational opportunities that could have changed my life. Over the years I have often reflected on this missed opportunity, weighing what could have been against the reality of my sentence. When I was presented with another opportunity to pursue higher education, I jumped at it, realizing that it could empower me to change my reality.

Returning to the classroom, I felt a mixture of anxiety and enthusiasm. I wasn’t sure what to expect as part of a diverse cohort of different ages, races, ethnicities, and educational levels. Despite the various paths that led us to prison, we were brought together through a vigorous enrollment process, a love of learning, and a will to grow as individuals. My path included breaking the habits I had built as a passive learner. I wasn’t very talkative growing up, and even less so in the classroom. I tended to keep my thoughts to myself and soak up information like a sponge. This habit became entrenched during the years I spent reading alone, so as I sought to express myself in the classroom a new challenge arose. I recognized that in trying to find the right words to articulate my thoughts, I had to think in depth about what it was that I was trying to say. The critical thinking that went into my writing assignments had to follow me into classroom discussions. I gradually learned how to express myself in class as I filtered the material through my own lens.

Equally important as finding my voice was the opportunity to engage with the ideas of my classmates. The various life experiences that make up our cohort have served to enliven and enrich discussions. Through these conversations, I have been able to perceive how any one particular issue is understood and experienced in different demographics. The general rule of respect that exists in most prisons is one aspect of this environment that merges well into the classroom. At a time in the United States when difference of opinion equals an adversarial relationship, our cohort has the advantage of being able to openly discuss controversial issues. Within the larger prison complex, the classroom has become a third space where our intellectual capacities can flourish as we are pushed by a challenging curriculum.

Beyond working to build on my strengths and address my weaknesses as a student, this experience has enabled me to discover a latent affinity for writing. While I have never questioned the merits of being well-read, I had taken the process of writing for granted. Before college, I had an interest in writing, but I would not have described it as my passion. However, after only a handful of writing and literature courses, I developed a deeper appreciation for, and a more nuanced understanding of, the enterprise of writing. Among the misconceptions of what I characterized as good writing was my belief in an objective approach. I attempted to distance myself from any subject that I was writing on, thinking this would produce an unbiased result. In short order, this strategy was turned on its head as I was introduced to the technical components that went into writing.

In particular, there were three aspects of writing that, once taken into consideration, altered my disposition: rhetorical situation, author, and audience. Although the audience and the rhetorical situation, or reason for writing, may seem to be obvious considerations, I was not accustomed to taking them into account in relation to myself as the author. Incorporating these ideas, I began to write with purpose. The very act of writing became imbued with empowerment as I approached the process with intentionality. I was discovering my voice as a writer and exploring the subsequent possibilities.

As much as my thinking as a writer has been changed through my educational journey, my identity has transformed in equal proportion. Being in prison, there are constant reminders of how life has been circumscribed. However, by participating in a college program that is both personally and materially constructive, the possibility of transcending these limitations becomes tangible. The unique challenges that come with being a student in prison ensure that the classroom does not represent an escape, but a place that facilitates the enrichment of life skills.

The journey as a student is made difficult due to the lack of Internet access for research and inconvenient access hours to the computer lab to type papers. While we are able to navigate some of these obstacles by filling out request forms for research, the process remains demanding. What you’re reading right now began its journey with a Bic pen and a composition book while sitting on my bunk, contemplating the very cinder blocks I wrote about. For me, the extra effort that goes into each assignment makes the work more fulfilling. College began to dominate my life as my days were structured around my studies. All of the reminders that I was in prison began to hold less weight than the obligations I felt as a student.

A prison sentence can feel like walking down a dark tunnel. Life is constricted, and for many, the light at the end appears to be out of reach. At the very least, a college education provides light within that tunnel, a sense of direction. For me, college has made the tunnel into a hallway, lined with the doors of opportunities that college presents. It’s a struggle for any person in prison to maintain their humanity, dignity, and hope; to grow as a human being while being accountable for your actions.

The growth I exhibited each semester as an EPI student eventually transcended the classroom. A growing academic prowess was not something I could, or even desired to, turn off. I entered each semester with curiosity and an enthusiasm that caught the attention of my peers who were not a part of my cohort. My dedication was expressed in the one-too-many late nights I stayed up trying to perfect a paper as well as the determined concentration with which I studied in a less-than-serene environment. Others became intrigued and eager to work their way into the classroom. I have frequently been asked about the next opportunity to enroll, and, without being able to promise anything, I encourage inquirers to keep studying on their own and to stay ready. I also warn them about the rigorous demands this program places on time and attention. Thus far, I have yet to dismay any would-be students.

Knowledge is prized in prison, for formal education often seems unobtainable. It is for this reason I cherish the opportunity to be in college. It is a unique experience to attend college while in prison, but given the heightened importance resulting from this dynamic, perhaps it shouldn’t be. Whether it was expanding my creative writing abilities in a screenwriting course, or finally mastering dreaded formulas in Business Mathematics, I have picked up skills that I can carry with me through life. This experience has broadened my understanding on many horizons as I went from the escapism of living to learn to the optimism of learning to live.

Excerpted from Education Behind the Wall: Why and How We Teach College in Prison, edited by Mneesha Gellman. © 2022 by Mneesha Gellman and reprinted with permission of Brandeis University Press. All rights reserved.

Image: Francesco Ungaro/Unsplash