Today was a day that I can only describe as a magical day of celebration. I have conferred an Associate of Arts degree from the recently accredited institution named Mount Tamalpais College. The campus is within the walls of California’s San Quentin State Prison, and I am an incarcerated person.
I believe that there is a direct correlation between my being expelled during the first week of high school and being incarcerated. At 14 I was expelled for smoking pot before class began. Because of an abusive stepfather, I did not return home that day. Instead, I ran away from home and never did return. I was in prison for five years for bank robbery.
While in federal prison I earned a GED with little effort and witnessed others in the class who were sleeping or writing letters earn theirs as well. My social and problem-solving skills were shaped more by simply surviving day-to-day, than by any concept of the future. My behaviors were based on what I could do in the moment to quell or quiet the fear and foreboding I always felt. My world was small and I was the center of it. This needed to change.
I decided to return to school while serving my third term of incarceration. By this time I was 54 years old and had been in 11 different prisons in five different states. My coping skills amounted to an easy way and a hard way. I was careless, apathetic, and dangerous. But I wanted to be a good person and hoped going to college would show me what that looked like.
My hopes were realized in spades by enrolling in the Prison University Project here at San Quentin. My social and problem-solving skills were expanded and constructed altruistically. The community became the center of my world to which I became a contributor. My world expanded into teachers, tutors, cohorts, and conversations of understanding. I learned to ask for help and to help when asked. I made honest and open connections with family and new friends. I was taught to teach and love enough to love others.
I learned that stepping out of my comfort zone broadened my comfort zone. I learned the joy of understanding others is greater than being understood. I learned to succeed and to enjoy the success of others.
On graduation day I found friends in everyone present. My niece and her family traveled 1,000 miles to spend less than three hours watching me walk across the stage in a cap and gown. The magic of that day was that after running away from home at 14, I felt as if I had finally come home after 48 years!
There were so many people who were responsible for putting the event together that it is impossible to thank them all. But, if anyone is wondering if they are making a difference, I want them to know that they already have. Thanks to Mount Tamalpais College, Warden Broomfield, and my family, I am no longer a careless, apathetic and dangerous person. I am remorseful, empathetic, and a contributing member of my community. I am a good person.
I wrote this with an immense sense of joy and thankfulness. I hope you accept your part in my transformation due to education. Going through life not being able to name things kept me confused. Education allowed me to recognize, organize, measure, hypothesize, experiment, and adjust.
Education gave me tools and explained how to use them to find my balance and voice. It is a great relief to not be the center of my world. It’s also with great relief that I know more than just an easy or hard way to find a solution to life’s challenges. Getting an education in prison is going to keep me from returning.
Being a third striker proves that I did not have the capability before. I’ll not be coming back to prison because I have already moved so far forward. Thank you for keeping the opportunity alive to earn a college degree in prison.