The Prison-Dorm Continuum
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because perseverance pays off.
The author writes for Vice and the Fix. He has written seven true-crime books.
Twenty-five years wasn’t something that I wanted to waste. When I arrived at Manchester Federal Correctional Institution in the southeastern foothills of Kentucky in 1993, I decided to make the most of a prison sentence. I was 22 years old, in for the first time for a nonviolent drug offense. I’d been caught selling LSD and marijuana on college campuses. And now, trapped inside the belly of the beast, I thought actually enrolling in college sounded like a smart idea. I’d earn my degree. Why not multiple degrees? I had nothing but time.
The prison offered a college program through Eastern Kentucky University, with real, live professors who came onto the compound and held classes in the education department. I signed up immediately. My head suddenly clear of drugs for the first time in a decade, I dove in and took a full load of courses my first semester in the fall of 1994.
As I finished my second semester, in the spring of 1995, I got some bad news. The college classes offered through Eastern Kentucky were being discontinued due to funding issues. Congress had passed a bill that abolished Pell Grants for prisoners, which were used for tuition and to pay for books. So much for my college career, I thought.
I went from All-American Boy to a Jeff Spicoli wannabe to supplying 15 colleges in five states.
But I’d come to love school and love learning, just like I used to. As a kid I was pretty studious: honor roll, gifted programs, three-sport star and all that. Then, the summer after 7th grade, I smoked pot for the first time in my friend’s garage and soon enough went from All-American Boy to a Jeff Spicoli wannabe to supplying 15 colleges in five states.
Education was always important in my family but drugs made me forget this. I found college to be challenging and it got me involved in something positive and kept me out of the mix and politics that existed in the compound. Instead of hanging with gangbangers, scheming on ways to get drugs into the institution and participating in prison politics, I was always busy doing my homework, reading and writing. I felt productive. I felt a sense of self-worth. I was actually rehabilitating myself. I decided to find another way to continue taking college courses from my prison cell.
I did a lot of research and looked into a bunch of different programs. I decided I would get my degree through correspondence, from Pennsylvania State University. I was familiar with Penn State because I used to take loads of drugs up there to sell. I always secretly wished that I went there. I used to sit in the student section for the football games; I loved the fraternities and the campus feel, but I thought I was above it all, making money and selling drugs. Kind of ironic, but they offered me a two-year degree. With the credits I’d already earned at Eastern Kentucky, I proved I was college material. I was accepted — now I just had to find a way to pay for it.
Prisons say they want to help inmates get their degrees, but they don’t make it easy. All they do is place obstacles in your path.
Any money I’d made from selling drugs was long gone. The cost was steep — around $100 a credit — plus books. I asked my parents to pay for the courses. I’d burned my bridges with them after years of drug abuse and dealing, but since my sentencing we’d been rebuilding our relationship. They agreed to fund my educational pursuits.
Prisons say they want to help inmates get their degrees, but they don’t make it easy. All they do is place obstacles in your path. I had to fight them tooth and nail to get the courses approved, get the materials in and get my tests proctored. I was also being transferred constantly, every two years or so, and every new institution I arrived at I had to get everything reapproved. But I persevered.
I enrolled in 1996 and by 1999 I had earned my associates degree. I wasn’t done. I wanted a bachelor’s. I went on to earn my B.A. in liberal arts from the University of Iowa in 2004. Still wasn’t finished. Next up, my master’s degree, the culmination to my educational odyssey. I figured getting an M.A. in prison was a big deal, so I wanted to do it. California State University, Dominguez Hills came through. I wrote my thesis on “outlaw heroes” and showed how America loved its anti-heroes —from Robin Hood to Billy the Kid to Bonnie and Clyde to John Gotti to Pablo Escobar to “Freeway” Ricky Ross. A somewhat fitting topic for a federal inmate, huh?
Except, I was hardly a hero. I’d fallen in love with the outlaw image in my early teens; I romanticized drugs and dealing. I followed the Grateful Dead around and thought I was the ultimate counterculture icon. I bought into the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll lifestyle — and I paid for it dearly.
But it made we want to analyze where it all came from. I examined Hollywood’s love affair with gangster movies and the proliferation of outlaw heroes in popular culture. I turned my downfall into my passion. I kept working on my thesis even when I was thrown in the hole for starting a riot for singing a punk rock cover version of “Fuck tha Police” with my band. (Funny, right? Not to the prison guards. They unplugged us, the crowd started chanting “fuck the police” and I was carted off.) But the educational supervisor was very pro-education and respected what I was doing. He used to bring me my books while I was in the hole. Hardly ideal conditions. In some ways, though, it was easier to write in solitary than on the block.
I graduated, in 2010, with a Master of Arts in humanities. It took me 16 years to earn three degrees, but I did it. My goal was to prepare myself to reenter society, to be a productive citizen and make a positive impact. Here I am.