NY Times Sunday Review | OPINION
By JOHN J. LENNON, APRIL 4, 2015
ATTICA, N.Y. — EVER wonder what prisoners do and talk about? Well, at the Attica Correctional Facility, we’re all tucked away in cellblocks watching TV. We watch a lot — all day, all night. Then we talk about what we’re watching. Conversation tumbles through the bars, about movies, ball games and the news on CNN. I hear voices, as if in a trance, rap along to Bobby Shmurda’s new music video on BET. The lyrics — about dealing drugs, toting guns and committing murder — sound like an anthem for the lives many of us have lived.
We don’t have access to the Internet but prison officials are all for TVs in the cells. It’s called the “TV program.” When prisoners watch TV instead of going to the yard, there’s less violence. We’re entertained and confined and everyone’s happy. But the TVs could be put to better use.
What if, a few times a week, massive open online courses, or MOOCs, were streamed on the prison’s internal station, channel 3? Companies like Coursera already record university lectures — in subjects like psychology, sociology, existentialism, economics and political science — and stream them online for free. The MOOCs, which are free for the rest of the world, could help American prisoners become more educated and connected.
Education was once an integral part of prison life. In the early 1980s, there were 350 college degree programs for prisoners nationwide. It was part of the “rehabilitative era.” School buildings in prisons were like satellite campuses of colleges, and federal and state grants paid prisoners’ tuitions.
But the following years brought unemployment, crack cocaine, the Willie Horton debacle and tough-on-crime rhetoric. When the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and other legislation quashed educational grants for prisoners in the ’90s, nobody seemed to care. Today, we live in the “retributive era.” The prison population has soared.
When the colleges left, the hope did, too, and when uneducated prisoners get out, they often come back. There are still some small college programs in prison, funded by philanthropists like Doris Buffett and George Soros who understand that education will provide us with a competitive advantage when we’re released. And the alumni of these programs rarely return to prison. In Sing Sing, for example, one forward-thinking educational program, launched in 1998, has a recidivism rate of less than 2 percent.
But too few can attend classes. At Attica, I’m one of 23 enrolled in a privately funded college program where we meet at night and study things like history, art and literature. We’ll be graduating with associate degrees this spring. But we’re the privileged 1 percent; there are 2,300 prisoners in Attica.
In February 2014, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced a plan to expand programs like these, by allocating $1 million of the almost $3 billion corrections budget for college courses in prison. I had hopeful conversations with other inmates who were looking forward to classes.
But then, some in the public balked. I imagine this is what they thought: We obey the law, pay taxes, stuff 529 savings plans to pay our kids’ college tuitions — and now prisoners are getting a free college education?
“Hell No to Attica University,” read the petition published online later that month, by former State Senator Greg Ball, Republican of New York’s 40th Senate District. Mr. Cuomo scrapped the plan in April.
I was convicted of drug dealing and murder in 2004, and sentenced to 28 years to life. When I entered the prison system I was in my mid-20s and had a ninth-grade education. I hated myself. I hit rock bottom in 2008, in a different prison, where I was jumped by another prisoner and stabbed six times with an ice pick. My lung was punctured.
After that, I was transferred to Attica and in 2010 joined a creative-writing workshop. Though I didn’t have much of a sense of self-worth, I learned I did have some untapped talent. Discovering this has brought with it another set of challenges, though. As I’ve discovered the satisfaction of learning, I’ve realized that I deprived the man I killed of ever discovering his potential, his human essence. I grapple with this shame.
My neighbor, Roberto Rivera, also wants to change his life. He’s a thugged-out 28-year-old from the Lower East Side, serving six years, his second prison stint, for selling drugs. He hears me typing during the day on an old word processor I use, sees me heading to class at night. He asks about what I’m learning.
So I tell him about the theories and concepts — Machiavellianism, Marxism, social Darwinism — that my cranky and brilliant instructor weaves through all of his lectures. I show Roberto my writing, pass him my subscriptions, sections of this newspaper, issues of The New Yorker and The Atlantic. I try to make education and intellect look cool. It seems to work.
Roberto had his own harrowing experience in 2013 on Rikers Island, where he found himself in the middle of an hour-and-a-half-long rumble.
“It was the Dominicans against the blacks,” he told me. “I’m Puerto Rican but once someone hit me, I had to go for mine.”
In the end, Roberto’s head and face were carved up and a broken broomstick was stuck in his eye. It took more than an hour for the corrections officers to come and peel him off the floor and send him to the hospital. Today his head is covered in scars and he’s blind in that eye.
By the time a prisoner finds a seat in a college program it’s likely he’s experienced, or at least witnessed, similarly traumatic events — and has had enough.
I helped Roberto write an essay about why he should be considered for the Attica college program. He took the entrance exam, hoping to land one of the 20 open slots, but he’s competing against about 200 other prisoners. What if Roberto doesn’t make the cut? His hope may dwindle. He’ll lift weights and watch TV. He’ll grow physically and languish mentally. Then he’ll get out.
MEANWHILE, if he had the option, I’m sure he’d turn to channel 3 and watch college lectures. Then he and I, and maybe a handful of others in earshot, could have intellectual discussions through the bars.
MOOCs are no substitute for the existing college programs, and no excuse not to develop them further. (I’d love to see Mr. Cuomo’s plan gain some traction, see those programs receive more funding and be expanded.) MOOCs should be a welcome addition, a much-needed backup, for those who might not make it into regular classes.
A majority of us will leave prison one day. I’ll go back to Brooklyn. We’ll find neighborhoods transformed — a new class of professionals and hipsters strolling the streets and supermarket aisles. I wonder if they’ll bristle when they hear us talk and learn about where we’ve been. We need to be prepared to return to the outside world and stay there. But have hope for us when we’re inside, too. We need opportunities to educate ourselves. My mother used to tell me something that obviously took me a long time to figure out: “How you think is how you act.”
John J. Lennon is an inmate at the Attica Correctional Facility.
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A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 5, 2015, on page SR9 of the New York edition with the headline: Help Us Learn in Prison.