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Incarcerated poet Tony Triplett wearing a green gown at his graduation ceremony from NPEP.
Photo by Monika Wnuk

I owe two natural life sentences to the state of Illinois, which means that self-doubt constantly flows through my body. I always feel like I am less than, on the verge of nothingness or just plain worthless. 

But for one day, I was able to experience a different reality. On Wednesday, April 20, I was reaffirmed when me and 19 other incarcerated men were celebrated and honored for our academic achievements. 

Cover of 2022 NPEP commencement program (Courtesy of Tony Triplett)

We were the first cohort in the Northwestern Prison Education Program to receive associate degrees from Oakton Community College in a commencement ceremony with the full pomp and circumstance of any graduation. We wore green caps and gowns and our professors from Northwestern and Oakton entered the auditorium in a formal procession with their academic regalia. 

The Black Oak Ensemble, with Grammy-nominated musicians, played music, and Aislinn Pulley, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Chicago and the co-executive director of the Chicago Torture Justice Center, was our commencement speaker. 

As part of the ceremony, each graduate was asked to give a two-minute speech. While I waited, anxiety hit me first, followed by fear. Self-doubt wound its way through my body, with shame as its plus-one.

Standing in line with the rest of my classmates, disquiet and fear clashed inside me, causing the “why” police to show up unannounced. I was all over the place emotionally and I was drained physically. Tears streamed down my face, while I rocked from side to side, trying to shake the nerves from my body. Then my turn came. 

The tassel from my cap wiped the tears from the right side of my face. That put me at ease, and I found myself wiping my entire face with the tassel. 

At that moment, it hit me. I was graduating. The emotional party was still going on in my body, but the professors on stage were all I saw. I purposely looked each professor in the eye as I walked toward the microphone. The emotional party inside me was over. Only self-doubt remained.

I gazed into the crowd searching for a face, but the masks made it virtually impossible to know who was who. Eventually, I saw my mother’s eyes. I could see she was going through the same emotions as I was. She pulled her mask down and smiled. I cleared my throat, and read the poem I had prepared. This was my moment.

“Am I Worthy”

I stand at the finish line between humble and cocky draped with pride on the outside
Wondering who can stop me?
Am I worthy?

An inmate with a number
But blue has never been my color
I take pride in my stride to be like no other
Am I worthy?

A philosophical scholar with existential views A journalistic genius with “in the moment” tools
Am I worthy?

Dazed and confused with nothing to lose
Armed with two degrees, from two elite schools
Am I worthy?

At times I feel like a seedless flower dying. By the hour
Trying my best to find my purpose I’m trying to grow
Do you like my surface?
Am I worthy?

I’m the son of a single mother, who’s been like no other. She will love me until she has nothing left. So, to you mom I say this: I love you, I thank you, all in the same breath.

Am I worthy?

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Tony Triplett is a writer incarcerated in Illinois. He is a 2022 graduate of the Northwestern Prison Education Program.