I recently read that “you are not free the day you walk out of prison; you are free the day you walk out of ignorance.” The statement resonates with me deeply. Yet, I know a lot of opposition exists against giving people who committed crimes an education at little to no cost.
I was released about two years ago, and today I am proud to say that I am preparing to enter grad school school in order to be in a position to bring healing and reparation to a society that I once helped damage. Ironically, it was because of college in prison I learned about the world around me. I learned how to articulate, communicate about, and address tension eloquently. I learned to question my own identity by immersing myself in Jane Eyre’s world, and by parsing out Wollstonecraft’s true beliefs about women in Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
The Bard Prison Initiative program, offered through Bard College, was a key player in facilitating this rehabilitation through education. BPI created a microcosm that few would expect to find in a prison. When the doors would close, the small room would instantly transform into a real college classroom setting. My peers would jump into a world of questioning and explaining. In that small Bard room, we had authority and our opinions had validity. We’d discuss James Baldwin, and Shakespeare. We’d explore public health issues and write countless essays and refine them. We’d even assume the role of historians as we’d investigate documents like the U.S. Constitution or the Federalist Papers to understand the intentions of this nation’s founding fathers. In an environment where our authority was limited, our professors constantly reminded us of our freedom to think and express.
We knew that education was our medicine and that’s what kept us eager to learn every day, something that may not always be true for students on the outside. I believe that in order to resurrect a a similar reverence for education so often lost upon matriculation, we have to be reminded of the transformative nature of education. Certainly, education gets us careers and salaries, but they also develop and heal us. For me, education provided a way to translate anger and aggression into eloquent and evidence-based dialogue that others could engage. I learned to employ my mind through critical thinking and reflection. As someone who was once immersed in crime, I attest to the confidence and knowledge a college education has equipped me with. I don’t know a better way to prepare inmates to be model citizens than by giving them access to knowledge that would ultimately put them in a place to understand their place in the world and more importantly, to assist others.