Earlier this year, I walked into the State Correctional Institution at Chester, in Pennsylvania, as an employee of Eastern University — and specifically as an instructor with their Prison Education Program. I was previously incarcerated in Alabama. Since my release, I have returned to various facilities as a speaker. I spoke to audiences about reentry, faith and the importance of taking advantage of one’s time in prison.
In my position with Eastern University, I don’t just share my own experience. I aim to be part of the lives and journeys of 32 other humans for 14 weeks. I don’t appear in their lives and then leave as quickly as I arrived. Instead, I have deep conversations with them about faith, reason and justice.
I feel these conversations are especially meaningful because I have been in their shoes. At 20 years old, I was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in Alabama. In the county jail, I was motivated to do the time instead of “letting the time do me.” I got involved with the GED program as soon as possible and I excelled in it. I had the highest score in my facility on the exam, and one of the highest in the whole country.
This accomplishment revitalized my hunger for education and helped me believe that I could continue to do better. While at Easterling Correctional Facility, I was able to do just that. I became a GED tutor, then was able to enroll in a drafting trade program and a theology program through the chapel.
These programs challenged me and made me think about educational opportunities upon release. I left prison in April 2013 and by January 2014, I was enrolled in college. I started at Eastern University, where I now work, with 67 credits, all because I took advantage of my time in prison and kept looking forward.
Kimberlee Johnson founded Eastern University’s Prison Education Program in 2015. She knew my story and the impact prison education had on me. She asked me to be on the program’s advisory board. Of course, I said yes.
Now, I have the opportunity to walk into a prison and be the hands of this program. I am teaching and working directly with these men. I see them not as “inmates” or “convicts,” but as humans and as Eastern University students. In each of them, I see myself decades ago and I have the same hunger to help them better themselves.
My experiences have given me credibility and common ground with incarcerated students that other teachers don’t have. It also allows me to show them genuine empathy that stems from having been where they are. When I shared that I was formerly incarcerated, there was definitely shock in some of their eyes.
But there was also a welcoming, a recognition that I came back and offer a hand. My goal is to see them in my shoes, in a place where they too can give back to those who are currently incarcerated. In our first class, some of the conversations already showed me that their hope is being restored. It is so moving to see seeds of hope and aspiration being planted, and I look forward to the harvest.
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.