Enabling Reinvention

Education and Incarceration: Struggles and Joy

By Robert Wood, Senior Social Media Advisor – The Prison Scholar Fund

March 7, 2002: I’m taken into federal custody, charged, and eventually plead guilty. As I leave the federal jail headed into the federal prison system in 2004 I begin to ponder not only how I’ll do my time but how the way I do my time will affect the person I come out of this situation as. Not only as a father but also as a brother, son, friend and member of the community. As I begin my journey in Terminal Island, a federal correctional institution in Southern California, I begin to watch a lot more news and pay attention to the world beyond just my previous domain of the streets. I realize now that the key to real change is knowledge and the key to positive change is positive productive knowledge in action. My worldview begins to rapidly evolve. Getting an education and helping others see the same light I am seeing becomes increasingly important to me. I begin to tutor GED students and teach Screenwriting as a volunteer in the education department. I am looking forward to going to college upon the first opportunity. Suddenly they decide to change the custody level of the institution I’m in. I’m transferred to another institution – the United States Penitentiary in Lompoc, CA. That’s where I’m able to actually begin my college education and all the struggles and joy that it will entail. The following is just little about the how I got started, the funding and the academic challenges within the prison environment, and just how much education really means to me.

Once I arrived in Lompoc I was afforded the opportunity to interview for a job in Unicor (Federal Prison Industries). The interview was successful and I was hired. As I met the accountant for the factory she told me about the Unicor Scholarship Program. I was immediately interested, so I grabbed an application and applied. Fortunately for me the state of California has a grant called the Board of Governor’s grant (BOG) which allows low income California residents to attend college for free. It was explained to me that the Unicor Scholarship would pay 75% of the costs of books and the BOG grant would pay the tuition in full. I registered for Coastline Community College. At that time no colleges were coming into the compound but Coastline offered a great correspondence program out of Orange County, California. I wanted to learn more about business since I had actually done some business in the past and see entrepreneurship as the lifeblood of America. I decided to do an Associates of Arts Degree in general studies and do the general business certification program they had which could actually be done within the course of completing that degree. A two for one since they didn’t offer a correspondence business associates of arts degree at that time. Needless to say I was very excited. There were naysayers, there were people who doubted my sincerity, and there were people in prison who said it was a waste of time to do all that when like everyone else I’d just get out and go right back to hustling because that’s what’s in me.

As I do my time I ignore the naysayers, which include some of my own friends, and continue to study hard to move forward with my education. Initially I find that studying is challenging. I begin my courses with a class called counseling 105, recommended by the counseling department, which teaches about studying and succeeding in college- this class helps me. On the streets I was involved with gangs and I begin to use that to my advantage to talk to young crips and bloods, and even some of the young Latino gangsters about taking college courses. Some of them decide to take the challenge and I’m very happy about it. I begin to talk to more and more people about using their time wisely and if possible I tell them college should be a part of that. I Ace most of my courses and talk to many other people of all races and gang backgrounds about school. I’m surprised I’m doing this but now when people come into the institution that are interested in school they will quite often be sent to me by their homeboys. Now the people being sent to me are of every race and gang demographic in the prison. I explain the college situation to them and encourage their participation. It is hard at times to study because we have lockdowns due to incidents of violence or the library will be closed for various reasons. I study in the cell when necessary. I walk around with notes in my pockets and study in lines for chow, medical, or as I go to the commissary. I study mentally at times by reviewing material I already know and understand to create deeper neural pathways for it. I make the dean’s list multiple times, and I also find studying to be very fun now. I’ve become somewhat distant to some people because I’m constantly in the books but I’m now the go to guy for education and I don’t even work in the education department officially.

Time passes and I continue to move forward. I get frustrated at times because I don’t have the things I need to properly complete assignments and must write my professors, explain my limitations, and ask to be graded accordingly. As I take accounting courses I must draw my own graphing paper. Things that take people minutes to do in excel take me hours by hand. The only calculators sold in the commissary are often not made for the levels of calculation necessary to complete some of my assignments so I must do a lot of math the long way. Writing takes longer than typing and when on lockdown all I have is a pencil and paper and must make it work. In the prison  environment noise is always a problem and I must study through it. In addition to all that I’m teaching ACE (Adult Continuing Education) courses and I’m the team leader for the start program (an at-risk youth outreach program we had then). I still work 8 hours a day to pay for my odds, ends, and my educational materials. My time is well occupied but the quest to continuously excel is a fight against an environment which is not always very conducive to it. I earn an Associates of Arts degree in general studies and general business certificate. I graduate with honors in both instances and I’m inducted into a national honor society, Alpha Sigma Lambda, for non-traditional students which you can only join by invitation. I’m honored when I graduate and the feeling is exhilarating.  

Upon completion of my first degree I begin to seek scholarship funding with the assistance of the education department which helps me find places to apply to. I learn about the Prison Scholar Fund (PSF), apply, and they begin to fund my education. They pay for the books and the tuition and now I’m able to afford the pursuit of my bachelor’s degree. As I take on the bachelor’s degree the assignments get more difficult but my grades get even better because of the strong study ethic I have developed during this time. The coursework is interesting and now I understand many things I previously pondered about business and other fascinating subjects. As time goes on my custody level drops. I’m moved to the low security facility within the complex. Because PSF was started by Dirk Vanvelzen while he was still incarcerated his dad, Ted helped him run the organization from the outside. Ted gets ill and PSF closes down for a while. During that time I read self improvement books and complete an AA degree in Sociology graduating with honors. I continue to work and teach courses, I borrow books when I can, and use the ones in the library. Often I’m crossing referencing text books about the subjects I’m studying to finish assignments with old textbooks that don’t actually match the courses but I make it work. I stay in touch with Ted because he has became a friend and I also let him know if Dirk wants to get PSF going again I’m there to help as much as I can in my current situation.

In the meantime a great friend of mine, Tanya, offers to pay for the completion of my bachelor’s degree. I accept and with her help and what PSF has already done I’m able to nearly complete my degree. The BOG grant only applied to community college so it could not be used to help me complete my bachelors degree. I needed all the help which came my way. Eventually Dirk is released and contacts me. He asks if I would like to help him out with PSF to which I say yes. I begin to write blogs and tweets for PSF, which can be seen at prisonscholars.org, and I become an adviser to Dirk in some capacities. Soon thereafter I go back to school. I complete my degree, and unfortunately right after that there is an incident at the prison. I spend some time In lock down right after graduating magna cum laude with a double bachelor’s of science degree in small business management and marketing from Adams State University. Although I’m from California and serving time there prior to the incident, which I’m exonerated of, as a resort of the incident I’m shipped to the East Coast in Allenwood, Pennsylvania to finish serving to my time.

As soon as I arrive in Allenwood I go to the education department and offer my services on a volunteer basis. I start teaching, the Prison Scholar Fund pays for me to start my MBA with an emphasis in business leadership, and I continue to talk to the people around, most whom I’ve just met since I got here, about educating themselves. The challenge is tougher here because there is no BOG grant so the lack of financing can easily deny people access to college and undercut their opportunity to pursue a degree. In those cases I tell them to read and study on there own like I had to do when I had a funding lapse. I learned a lot during that period and much of it was invaluable. I understand the joys and struggles of seeking education in the prison environment, and although I look forward to getting out soon the struggles and joy of education continue to both excite and frustrate me. I’m just glad to be a part of the Prison Scholar Fund, an organization trying to do what they can to help in that capacity, and allowing others to reap the same opportunities I’m enjoying, to pursue higher education while incarcerated – #Joy & Struggles!

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