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Man looks out at future from top of staircase climbing out of an open book
Illustration by Yutthana Gaetgeaw on iStock, adapted by PJP

When a person arrives at a correctional institution, time stops.

There is limited contact with the outside world, and meaningful relationships quickly become distant. Criminal behavior becomes a means for survival, and the brain starts to lose its need for higher forms of thinking. By not being fully alive in the present or using critical thinking skills, a prisoner stays more firmly imprisoned in the past.

The scarlet letter “F,” for felon, now a permanent part of one’s identity, feels like an insurmountable label and obstacle. Without any positive influences, it is easy to fall into a cycle of distorted thinking, which can lead to destructive choices.

For me, the answer to this predicament came in the form of education. Prison deprives an individual of their freedom, but an education can help tear down the constraints of the mind and awaken the drive to work toward short-term and lifelong goals.

I had tried for several years to get into a college program while incarcerated. The correspondence courses were expensive, and navigating the prison bureaucracy on my own seemed more trouble than it was worth. I am limited to five books on my property list at a time, and the mailroom procedures seem to change every year.

I am a disabled veteran with GI Bill eligibility. But finding a Department of Veteran Affairs-approved college that an incarcerated person could access was another encumbrance. I had almost given up hope until I saw the college leaflets that were posted around the prison in the fall of 2019.

My values, norms and thinking were soon to be challenged during the spring semester of 2020 in Ashland University's Correctional Education Program. I quickly learned that education is the enemy of bigotry, racism and stereotypes.

My ethnocentric attitude towards other faiths was stereotypical and negative. The world religions course provided me with a balanced understanding of the unique differences in the global community. My dislike for any religion or denomination other than my own was based solely on fear and ignorance. My lack of understanding of other cultures and their values caused me to regret some of my past attitudes. I found myself occupied with retrospective thoughts as I realized my intellectual poverty.

Before my time in prison, I would never have thought about theater or a Broadway show. That was for rich people. But then I fell in love with the human action before my eyes in theater class, watching “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Rent,” and “Oklahoma!” Before that class, I thought the Tony Awards were for wannabe actors. Now, I found myself clapping to a scene from the 2011 Tony Award-winning musical “Anything Goes,” starring Sutton Foster. Imagination and the arts are absolutely critical to the quality of our lives. I may never be able to afford a Broadway show, but an off-Broadway show or regional play is now on my bucket list.

Similarly, I thought that jazz was just a type of music played by Kenny G on his saxophone or by some nightclub lounge singer. I then discovered in my music course that jazz originated right here in the U.S. The different styles, tempos, instruments and regions of jazz's specific melodies made me wonder how I missed this treasure.

The next thing I knew, I was purchasing songs by Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and the Glenn Miller Orchestra. I became excited to discuss the various types of saxophones. In prison, jazz became a soothing island in the sea of misery.

From my cell, I visited Machu Picchu in Peru’s Andes Mountains through the poetry of Pablo Neruda as part of my Latin American literature course. I was exposed to the domination of indigenous peoples by the conquistadors, upending my earlier impression of them as friendly explorers.

The institution of slavery is a horrible chapter in our nation's past. And that was all that I knew about it. In my philosophy of human nature class, former slave and writer Frederick Douglass offered me firsthand accounts in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” I now see a race of people who were done a terrible injustice through events that have lasting effects and that must never be forgotten or repeated.

Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” had me reevaluating my own morals and virtues. Philosophy encouraged me to conduct an autopsy of my moral compass and reexamine the values I hold. I now understand that my craving for connection can motivate me to become a contributing member of society as I grow intellectually and emotionally.

Prison education has allowed me to break free from the prison routine that hinders growth. By embracing an educational opportunity over criminal activities inside of prison, I am choosing to overcome some of the common barriers that can obstruct reintegration.

I will graduate with my bachelor’s degree in the spring of 2023. Being able to someday identify as a college graduate has given me a renewed sense of hope. It’s a motivating factor for me to succeed.

Doors of my past have closed, but new ones are opening. The scarlet letter that I bear is no longer an insurmountable label and obstacle. Now, it’s a reminder of how I turned my predicament into a human achievement.

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.

Shon Pernice is a contributing writer for PJP. He is a veteran and a Kansas City native who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a combat medic and came home with traumatic brain injury and PTSD. He has been published in Veterans Voices, The Beat Within and Military Magazine. He is a contributing author to the book, "Helping Ourselves By Helping Others: An Incarcerated Men's Survival Guide." Shon was incarcerated in Missouri.