Monday, May 27, 2013

The Reality and Importance of Reentry

On a recent spring morn, I proudly walked across the stage at Cleveland State University’s Wolstein Center and received the Master of Arts in English degree.  More than 2,100 deserving former students received baccalaureate and graduate degrees that day.  Each one of the successful graduates, no doubt, had overcome a number of demanding challenges to complete his or her program of study, and many of them overcame tremendous odds against such a signal accomplishment.  Each new graduate, too, could probably tell a story that would serve to inspire and inform us in unique ways.  Here, I will briefly share something of my story.

I served 30 years in prison.  I went to prison as a 21-year-old first-time offender.  Several years of pot-smoking foolishness had propelled me on a path that ultimately led to tragedy.  A series of bad decisions that should have served as a wake-up call didn't.   When I finally did awaken, I found myself serving a life sentence, responsible for the unthinkable.

When the fog cleared, I resolved to defy all the stereotypes and commit myself to learning, character, and service.  I completed a bachelor degree while in prison, and I yearned for the opportunity to continue my education after prison.  “After prison” gradually became more and more of an abstraction as the years rolled by.

My reentry experience began six years ago, when I finally got paroled.  I had heard something about the difficulties occasioned by a criminal background but nothing prepared me for the degree of difficulty I would encounter upon my return from prison.  Nothing could.  Suffice it to say, once a person becomes a convicted felon, life becomes quite complicated.

I want my academic success to inform societal thinking about people who have made serious, criminal, mistakes—people like me.  Most of us truly want to overcome our mistakes and live a good and decent life.  Most of us will do just that, if afforded a fair opportunity.