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Editor’s Note: This essay won the 2020 Underground Trojans Scholarship. Founded by a formerly incarcerated student and allies at the University of Southern California, Underground Trojans is a student-led organization that leads a human rights movement behind prison and post-prison education. The mission of Underground Trojans is twofold: to challenge stigma and discrimination associated with previous arrests and convictions and continue to build a “Prison-to-School Pipeline” through recruitment, retention and advocacy. To view the original publication, click here.

When Vice Admiral James Stockdale’s plane was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965, he spent eight years as a prisoner of war, four of those were spent in solitary confinement where he was subjected to physical and psychological torture. Stockdale said that what helped him survive his dark isolated hell was education. Reading classical subjects like history, philosophy and religion provided Stockdale with a sense of well-being and helped him keep his integrity and self-respect.

Vice Admiral Stockdales’s story reminds me of the 10 years of my life I spent on a Level 4 maximum security prison facility in California. During those years, I endured the intense psychological pressure associated with being confined in a small cell 24 hours a day every day, without access to outdoor exercise, fresh air, or the sun. The only time I left the cell was under the pain of restraints to take a five-minute shower, every three days. I remember feeling depressed, anxious and full of fear, like the walls were closing in. I was restless sitting, lying down, pacing the small cell. Deprived of any opportunity to look through a window at the outside world to catch a glimpse of life, deprived of human contact. Left alone in my own dark isolated hell, my mind began to unravel. Comfort came when I opened the pages of a book.

Like Stockdale, I read the Bible, I read history and philosophy. I read “Blood in my Eye,” “Behold the Pale Horse,” and “Agents of Repression.” I read the “Metu Neter,” “From Maleness to Manhood” and “Death Blossoms.” Soon the chains and images of my psychological slavery were broken and I felt a sense of peace. I began to see windows that I could look through and watch as historical figures conquered the same conditions I was facing. I saw how they persevered. I felt stronger, full of pride. The weight of my oppression had lifted. I felt free. Vice Admiral Stockdale survived his ordeal in a North Vietnamese prison camp by seeking refuge in education and I too have found such refuge. 

I was caught in a “school to prison pipeline“ in the 1970s and 1980s. I entered a public school system that was not interested in getting to know me or understanding my needs. I grew up without a father. I was deprived of attention from my teenage mother. We were poor, often hungry and homeless. I acted out in school. I disconnected from educators. I’d disrupt class and fight with teachers. I bullied the other students. As a result, I faced corporal punishment, detention, suspension and expulsion. I went to school with campus security and police. I was brought home from school in the back of police cars. Because I couldn’t connect with school, school disconnected from me.

When I entered the prison system in the 1990s, the goal of prison was to punish people and warehouse them until they died. It was an unwritten rule that there was a no parole policy for people with life sentences. Prisons were being filled to 200 percent of their design capacity. Gymnasiums were turned into makeshift dormitories with triple bunk beds lined up wall-to-wall. More prisons were being built. Any idea of providing education had been abandoned. We had nothing to do but sit around on the prison yard. There would be 200 to 300 of us — from all walks of life — separated by ethnicity and street gang membership. There would be lots of fighting, stabbing and murders. Many were overdosing on drugs. People were hanging themselves or jumping from upper tiers to their death. There were riots, gang melees and assaults on officers. The environment was hopeless.

During lockdown, I developed a voracious appetite for reading and studying everything, including the law. At the same time, I was filing appeals for my freedom, I started filing complaints about inhumane prison conditions. Years of reading increased my craving for knowledge and changed my perception of school. Education helped me develop my own dignity, self respect, integrity and sense of morality.

When you’re in prison it feels like the front lines of a war. You cannot hide in some corner of the world oblivious to everything going on around you. You cannot drown in sorrow by using alcohol or drugs. You’re forced to face your demons and to come to terms with America’s flaws. But the enemy is more psychological than physical. It encompasses everything that is broken in America — the educational system, the criminal justice system, race relations and all other broken systems of society. 

When I intersected with the prison system it was, in and of itself, an educational experience. My struggle for freedom and humane treatment demanded I become educated. Every complaint I made against the prison, every petition I filed to the courts, helped me learn and become more politically motivated and active towards understanding the role I play in American society; my obligation as a member of the society, to learn about democracy, its demands, and what it looks like.

Studies show that almost 75 percent of incarcerated people in the United States are functionally illiterate. Upwards of 65 percent of them don’t have a high school diploma. Forty-one percent are high school dropouts, only 23 percent have a GED. Over 70 percent of incarcerated people will return to prison after they are released. But if incarcerated people participate in education programs, recidivism reduces by 43 percent. For those who pursue college degrees, the rate of recidivism goes as low as zero percent.

Today, California prisons welcome education. They have a parole policy for people with life sentences. They have reduced overcrowding and racial disparities and they have ended indeterminate solitary confinement programs. California has also taken the lead in fixing the problem of mass incarceration. I don’t believe any of this would’ve happened but for myself and other incarcerated people getting educated and fighting to change the harsh conditions of our broken system. In the end, I believe an educated incarcerated population is critical to ending mass incarceration.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Steve Brooks is a writer for San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated. He has been published in the San Francisco Public Press, Street Spirit, All of Us or None and Voice of Witness. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has won a 2020 Journalism Excellence Award by SPJ's Northern California chapter for two of his columns published by PJP.