Illustration by ajijchan on iStock

I graduated from high school with a 2.85 GPA and then, while in prison, graduated from college summa cum laude with a 3.93. I earned both GPAs.

School was an immense challenge for me. From an early age, I was bullied for being slow in math and reading.

I didn’t know then, but I was distracted by the trauma of domestic violence. These early adverse childhood experiences hampered my education, ironically, until I was incarcerated.

It all started at home. As young boys tend to do, I often angered my dad by making mistakes and not following his directions. He would respond by calling me stupid or asking me if I was stupid.

This first first label stung and made me feel small, just like when my dad would hit me and my mom. I felt powerless.

Later, when I struggled to absorb concepts in school, my peers noticed and pounced. They labeled me a “dummy” and called me “retarded,” reinforcing the slights I already received at home. I felt ostracized and came to believe something was wrong with me.

Frustrated, I began to lash out violently. My peers responded by recoiling — just like I did at my dad‘s hand. Their response validated violence as an effective social tool and further warped my perspective on interpersonal relationships.

With the bullies at bay, clowning around became my way of avoiding classwork and making friends. In high school, I earned the label of “class clown,” and I was proud of it.

Before my high school graduation, I approached my counselor and told him that I was at a crossroads. I wanted to explore college opportunities. My counselor reviewed my file while I sat before his mahogany desk. His deep blue eyes scanned the first page of my transcript from behind his wire-rimmed spectacles. He peered at me and declared that I was not “college material.” Once again, I felt small and rejected.

That was 1984, and the newest drug craze, crack cocaine, promised illusions of ghetto fame and riches. I took the bait.

During my childhood, my father sold weed and fenced stolen goods. I took note and became an adept dealer. I did not know it then, but I was successful because I was unwittingly employing the tenets of tried and true capitalism: buying low and selling high, compounding profits and engaging in marketing techniques. I had an aptitude for negotiating and closing deals.

Large sums of fast money flowed through my young hands. Immaturity and arrogance fed into the culture of violence that came with it. Within five years, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, deemed incorrigible and thrown away. This is how the school-to-prison pipeline became my reality.

Idleness and sheer boredom in the Los Angeles county jail drove me to read anything I could get my hands on. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” was floating around, and I devoured it. Malcolm offered me a caustic mirror of what we young Black men were doing to ourselves, our families and our communities. He demonstrated how we can do better, even while locked up. 

I adopted his autodidactic approach to doing time. The Bible helped equip me with a morality I so desperately needed.

A few years later, in the vast California prison system, I met Ms. Townsend, a teacher with an effervescent spirit and a staunch political junkie. Over time, she challenged my warped thinking, helping me to see the wider, mainstream perspective. She encouraged me to read a wider range of topics, added the newspaper to my reading repertoire and  taught me how to debate. 

Unlike my high school counselor, Ms. Townsend focused on my potential, not my past. She recognized my need for guidance and filled the void, teaching me how to heal. 

Her efforts prepared me for a paralegal correspondence course that friends had helped pay for. I completed the course with honors. My self-esteem turned around. 

I later shared various written compositions with Ms. Townsend, which she encouraged me to share with a broader audience through publication.

Through those publications, my reputation as a writer preceded me when I transferred to the state prison in Lancaster. It was a reputation that countered the traditional toxic masculinity generally prevalent on the prison yard. “Writer” was a label my family and I could take pride in.

My newfound peers sought me out immediately for help with their writing. Under my tutelage, 15 of the 20 writers who approached me successfully published their work.

I continued to formally pursue my own education, earning four associate of arts degrees, a doctorate of ministry and, most recently, a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Los Angeles. 

I also became a peer instructor. After I taught a writer’s class, I led courses on victim sensitivity and parenting. I modified the curricula from my various college courses to address the specific needs of myself and my peers. 

The victim sensitivity class made me understand the ripple effects of the wrongs I had done to others. The parenting classes helped me recognize that I had an abusive childhood.

Since then, education has been a catalyst for my transformation and self-actualization. I do not see myself as slow, mentally deficient, incorrigible or a throwaway. Today, I don’t define myself as just a prisoner, and I am certainly not stupid. 

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.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Dortell Williams

Dortell Williams is a writer, who holds a B.A. in communication studies from California State University, Los Angeles. He cares about empathy and healing to solve America's many divisions, hate and injury.
Dortell is incarcerated in California.