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Texas Department of Criminal Justice offices in Austin, Texas, United States
Photo by Larry D. Moore (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The first time I tried to go to college in prison I wound up in a brightly lit room with a cot on the floor in the corner and a leaky toilet. We called it the hole.

I was 19 years old and segregated as punishment for stealing a cookie out of the cookie jar. I was guilty. I did it on purpose. I stole the cookie and then sent my friend to tell the staff I did it.

My intent was to get fired from my job because I was determined to get into a class offered by a technical college. The prison staff had denied me, saying that working for the facility was a priority.

I had chosen to steal a cookie because I knew from research that theft was considered a minor case and would not warrant being sent to the hole. But I hadn’t realized that I could be held there for 14 days while the case was under investigation.

My time in solitary taught me a lesson: Prisons value free labor over rehabilitation, and those who oppose them will suffer.

Upon release from the hole, I learned that prison staff had held a meeting to inform other incarcerated people that if they tried to pull a stunt like I had, they would wind up like me — in the hole with a disciplinary infraction.

In the officers’ eyes, my action threatened security, but that had not been my intent. Being new to the system, I had not known that my crime had the potential of rallying others to do the same in their pursuit of education.

I got out just in time to enroll in classes, but my triumph was short-lived. I was permitted to take only one class, and I was then transferred to another facility, where I was unable to take another class for the duration of my sentence.

Many years later, I found myself battling the system again for more educational opportunities.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice policy requires incarcerated people to be within 10 years of parole before attending college. Other requirements include achieving a certain level score on the Test of Adult Basic Education and having a certain level of time-earning status, which is a way that the state keeps track of people in good standing.

I, therefore, couldn’t start at Central Texas College until 2015. I worked on the field squad until I could start college.

When I took a vocational course and needed study time, I researched my options. I found out that if an inmate in the TDCJ works a job and also goes to school, their combined hours should not exceed normal working hours. If work hours are 40 hours per week and I went to school for 15 hours a week, then I should only have to work 25 hours per week.

But when I spoke to my boss about it, they took me to a captain, who berated me and threatened to give me a disciplinary infraction if I did not work full hours. They told me that the rule only applied in cases where TDCJ was receiving educational funding. Funded classes included parenting, GED prep and cognitive intervention.

In women’s prisons across Texas, numerous inmates hurt themselves to get out of jobs and go to school. They may beat their ankle or wrist with a lock or fall in the workplace. Some ladies burn themselves in the kitchen with grease or on hot stoves.

Sometimes they want to go to school because they want to get out of their jobs, but the many requirements can be an obstacle. Some classes may only be offered at other institutions, so women must figure out a way to be transferred to another facility. We find ways to get what we need and want.

I once signed up for a welding class because I felt that my job was a hazard to my safety. The cost of taking this class was having to strip naked four times a day, five days a week. It was terrible, especially when we had to bend over with our hands spreading our butt cheeks so they could see inside. It was the most humiliating time of my incarceration.

Being crammed in the strip shack with 30 to 40 naked women lifting this, spreading that. Sometimes there were women who commented on people's bodies with disdain or catcalls.

People endure emotional turmoil to seek an education in prison. It’s a challenge beyond learning.

That’s why something as simple as earning a certificate is such a big feat. It says we fought for something, overcame something, fought a giant and won.

It feels like the system doesn’t want us to make it. It feels like we are offered educational opportunities only because the system needs to look like it is contributing to the betterment of society.

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.

Sakina Shakur was the editor of Money Games, a prison newsletter about personal finance. She holds an associates degree in general studies and is a student in a joint program at the University of Houston-Downtown and Houston Community College. She is passionate about history, politics, religion and criminal justice reform. She was incarcerated in Texas.