BY LARRY STEPHENSON
There aren’t many positive prison programs available in the criminal justice system these days. But forty-years ago, college courses were offered with the possibility of achieving two and four year degrees. During the “Reagan Era,” Pell Grants for prisoners was eliminated – and college programs in prisons folded.
I was one of the many prisoners who took advantage of those college courses and, after many years of taking four classes per year, I was able to achieve my Associate and Bachelor degrees.
Before I entered the criminal justice system, I attended college on the outside, completing two semesters of study. I wasn’t totally serious about my education before I entered the justice system – which is part of the reason why I never completed college on the outside.
But once I settled down from my immature behavior and recognized the seriousness of my situation, life without parole, I buckled-down with my studies and changed my procrastinating lifestyle.
College classes weren’t easy for me, mainly because I wasn’t a serious student in high school. I just did what I had to do to graduate. When I returned to college level studies, I had to work extra hard to pass each course, sometimes reading and studying far into the late hours at night, then getting up early, to go to my prison job, fatigued.
Because of my struggles, determination and perseverance to complete the prison degree program, my life changed for the better. The following will explain why.
Forty years ago, my two sons were just 5 and 6 years of age when arrested, convicted and sentenced to life without parole. Before my arrest and conviction, I was never away from my children. My incarceration had a devastating effect on my sons’ psyches.
It broke my heart to see my babies so sad when their mother brought them to visit me and when it was time for them to leave.
Because I loved/love my sons so much, I knew I had to do something creative and urgent to ease their confused and troubled minds, due to my confinement.
My sons always tried to emulate whatever they saw or heard someone say I did in my youth, on the outside – especially in school and athletics.
So when I told them I was taking college classes and playing sports, just like they would be doing in school, I challenged them to try to outperform me in those areas. It was the miracle I needed to spare my sons from more heartaches. It gave them a mission to connect with me while I was away.
Because I was only allowed to take four college classes each year (two per semester), it took me exactly fourteen years to complete the Associate’s and Bachelor’s Degree program. It was perfect timing with the challenge I made with my sons.
By the time I finished my degree requirements, my children were beginning their junior year of college. I just edged them, by four semesters, regarding my challenge to them. They even attended my graduation.
Legislators should take a serious look at reintroducing legislation that would bring Pell Grants for prisoners back as a means to help curtail the revolving crisis of recidivism.
Statistics and studies on crime and rehabilitation have shown that prisoners who obtained college degrees while incarcerated have a drastically lower rate of recidivism, as opposed to the high recidivist mark of those prisoners who don’t have college diplomas.
It must be understood that 90% of all prisoners will be returning to society at some point. Whether they will be assets to their communities or liabilities is largely based upon their educational training while incarcerated.
Both of my sons graduated from college, with Bachelor and Master Degrees. Today they are employed as Guidance Counselors in the field of education, shaping and forming young minds in a positive way. They attribute their successes and college triumphs to me, for being a positive example for them by never giving up on my educational dreams and goals, especially behind prison walls.
Larry Stephenson is serving Life without Parole in Pennsylvania.
We send your comments to our writers, but if you’d like to write to Larry Stephenson directly, please write to:
Larry Stephenson #AM-1449
PO Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426