A small chalkboard with "Back to School" written in cursive with white chalk.
Photo by Deleece Cook on Unsplash

I heard two loud noises at my door. Thump! Thump! 

Two textbooks slid underneath my cell door, accompanied by corresponding assignments and learning contracts. 

I smiled from ear to ear. School was officially in session.

Too often people behind bars have been told they were not good enough or smart enough to ever amount to anything. 

When I was in high school, I decided to enroll in community college. I told my older brother my plan. His immediate response: “For what?” 

I answered that I didn’t know. I had told my brother my plans because I wanted him to encourage my decision and nudge me in the right direction. Instead, his response was an implicit confirmation of all the negative thoughts I’d encountered throughout my life.

Today I’m in a high-security state prison in California, but strangely, in some ways this is a more academically encouraging environment. 

When I look around the prison yard, I don’t see men who think they won’t amount to much after incarceration. Instead, I see men who have been transformed through education. They’ve completed dozens of reading assignments and written essays, which have grown their minds and given them a hopeful outlook on life. 

College classes are incentivized for the vast majority of people incarcerated in California state prisons, except for people on death row or those serving life without parole. 

The state’s passage of Proposition 57 in 2016 has made it so that people in California prisons can get meaningful reductions in their prison sentences for passing classes. The results from these decisions have immensely impacted the way we do our time, which in turn changes the way we view our time. 

A certain energy is generated from the start of a new semester for us incarcerated students. There’s the excitement and anticipation of knowing we’ll be intellectually challenged and get a shorter sentence as our reward.  

People here have learned how to use Chebyshev’s theorem to calculate a price range. They’ve learned the difference between psychoanalytic and psychodynamic therapy. 

Regardless of the topic, everyone enjoys newfound confidence from their new knowledge. 

In this environment, you can easily wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time because you are surrounded by people who are still “living that life” — the same one that brought them here.  

Classes have given us a reason to avoid destructive habits and stay out of trouble.

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.

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Fabian Garcia

Fabian Garcia is a poet who uses writing to express his feelings and share his story. His first poetry book is expected to be published in January 2022. He is incarcerated in California.