Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in July 2021, undergraduate student Henry James (C’22) interviewed community members at Ignacio House, New York. Due to the sensitive nature of information, interviewees are anonymous.
Can we start off with your educational experiences before prison? What were they like?
Yeah, so I remember always struggling in school. I mean, I don't know how I made it, as far as I made it, because I just really remember always getting F’s. A lot of trouble [I] experience growing up was related to me doing poorly in school. I was on…I was always on weekly reports. Elementary school, middle school, you know, I had to have, bring home, a piece of paper and my mom would have to sign to show that [I] did my homework. And I would have to bring it back the next day to give to my teacher. At the end of the week, I will have to bring home, like, a status report to show it to my stepfather. But I always struggled in school. Part of it, I think, is I moved around a lot growing up. So I did 11 years in a public education system. And out of those 11 years, I probably went to nine different schools, sometimes to different schools in the same year. So it was just hard.
How far did you end up going?
To the eleventh grade.
How long after you went to prison did you get your GED?
My logic was, the sooner I get my GED, the better, because I didn't want to wait until I went up north to a state facility to get my GED. Because that would mean I would have to wait longer to get a good high-paying job. So I actually pushed to be put into a minor GED program in a county jail. And eventually, in December 2008 [over a year after arriving in prison], the second time I took it, I got my GED.
Did you ever want to give up after you failed it the first time?
No, because I think, I think what I discovered was my interest in reading. That I like to read. And that I like to learn. And I actually took a lot of pleasure in going down [to] study. I actually liked that experience. And I just felt different, because everybody else was watching music videos and TV or movies all day. I was the only one trying to do something productive within a unit of like 30 guys. So I felt like I was trying to set an example, and I felt like I was doing the right thing.
Do you remember what subjects you were enjoying?
Philosophy. Going down to the computer lab, there was an encyclopedia CD, and I used to print out, like, a ton of philosophy pages. Plato, just like a whole bunch of ideas about virtue and ethics and reincarnation. It was all vocabulary; it was just about defining the terms that philosophers use. These are the philosophers, this is what they said, this is what they did. But I loved it.
Prior to prison, did you ever have that interest?
Absolutely not. Before jail, I don’t even know when I read a whole book. Like that wasn’t a part of my life. Reading, writing, learning, they weren’t at all. Maybe because I just felt like I wasn't able to comprehend things. I felt like I wasn't confident [in] my capacity to learn. Because I struggled in school, right? So it was just like that’s not for me. And even going up north, once I got my GED, it was like, I will go to a library [but not enroll in the school programs]. Like, that was my thing. Everybody that goes to prison has a thing. So, like, that was my thing, going to a library as much as I can. Now I got an opportunity to read The Republic, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, or Sophocles. Now I got the opportunity to actually read their books. But I was reading these things just because I liked it. I was interested in philosophy. But I didn't do it because I was trying to be smart, or I was trying to get into college. Like, I always felt that college wasn’t for me. School wasn't for me.
You were reading all of these books on your own.
Yeah. I was up north for 13 years. I didn't start college to my last two years.
So you spent 11 years just reading.
Just reading. From day one, that was, that was my thing. I was just fascinated by their ideas. I was fascinated by the questions they were asking. And I guess how they engaged life.
An old girlfriend of mine was like “You’re not a philosopher.” And it still bothers me to this day. Like, I’m not capable of thinking about things deeply? But then it’s just, like, I am. And I think that’s what drew me to these guys because they thought about life in this deep, reflective way. And it’s like “how can I do that?” And so I think unconsciously, just reading them, I was educating myself, just not officially. I have nothing to show for it. NO credentials to prove that I’m qualified to interpret what Plato meant by condemning poets.
Do you remember how the interest started?
I think my biggest mistake, and something that I still struggle with now, is an inherent sense of weakness, of the mind. And because of that, I try to compensate for that by trying to fit in with these guys who I guess relied on not so much the mind to advance in life but muscle. Things that I wasn’t particularly good at because I’m not an intimidating person, so that didn’t work out for me, didn’t work out for me at all [laughs].
But early in my bid, I became sensitive to the fact that this isn’t working out for me. I was so broken by being in prison that I started disconnecting myself from the people around me, and with that, that space, I created a space where I can actually discover things about myself. And my pain made me thoughtful and reflecting. And out of that came like “Maybe I read this person,” and then I just discovered Plato. Who’s Plato? Well he said what is virtue? Oh, it’s good, like I want to be good. I want to be this. The cardinal virtues, trying to understand them. One of the first books that I ever bought was this book by a guy named William Bennett. It's called The Book of Virtues. And it’s a children's book. It’s a children's book, and it has a bunch of stories, children's stories about virtue.
And I actually fell in love with the book. And I would read that religiously, because I wanted to understand what it meant to be good. And I wanted to be a better person. And then when you read these types of books, right, there's always references that point you somewhere else. And then it's like, oh, I need to get that book. Who is that person? And it just started something for me, and I just went on is, like, this journey of, like, just following these references. Something in Plato pointed me to the Greek world. And then I think just being in that universe kind of pointed me to, like, the Romans, hepatitis [sic] and eventually, like, Aesop's fables. And then I fell in love with the classics. And I started reading a bunch of classics. And then I just, I guess, their writing made me more reflective, made me more perceptive. It just made me more quiet. You know, and in that silence, I was just figuring it out. You know, like, what was wrong with me? Or where I went wrong. In terms of just, like, how did I get here? Is prison the best I can do? Is that the best I can hope for? I spent all my time trying to answer that question.
Do you remember any specific points of reflection that were meaningful?
So I was real depressed. And my depression was rooted in, I couldn’t answer the question: is this the best I can do? And, like, everything that I came up against in prison, from the greens that I wore, to the type of work I was doing, you know, I worked in the mess hall, cleaning tables, washing the dishes. I was a real hard worker. I worked my ass off. But it always bothered me, like, damn, is this the best I can do? And again that pain that I felt from asking myself that question, it made me reflective. Reading the things I was reading it was like, nah, I can do better. But in that moment, I couldn’t see past the certain point, so there wasn’t nothing possible. So it was, like, I can do better, but I don’t know what that is, what that looks like. So I lived in my head a lot, because I’m trying to create a life, trying to see what makes sense. What it meant to be better than I was. For a long time I couldn’t think past my greens. I was stuck there. Reading helped me…[pause] reading actually made it more painful too. It made the weight heavier. Because as I read, I got more sensitive. And as I got more sensitive, I started to notice a lot more. About myself and about my environment.
And as I noticed, my self-awareness, my awareness of what was going on around me, it was just like, damn, like, this hurts. I mean, everything from the colors on the walls, from the way my cell was organized, from the urinals right here, my bed was right here. And it felt everything was calculated to humiliate me, constantly. And I couldn't get away from it. Right? So I couldn't escape that humiliation. It was just always there in front of me. I go to the mess hall. Just to walk to the mess hall to eat was a walk of shame. And I couldn't escape it. So I [was] always in this furnace. And I was just constantly burning. Eventually, I came out of it.
You know, reading, like, Epictetus, in his book Golden Sands, he was, like, take everything, receive everything, as material for fire. Use fire to reshape things. And so in my mind, I was philosophizing that way. I need to take all this in to help me burn something away that’s inside of me and regenerate something new. For a long time, I was religious. I was part of the Protestant community. But over the years, I just became not interested in it. It was no longer providing me with the depth of insight I needed. It wasn’t about faith because I always believed in a higher power. But that source of information wasn’t giving me something I needed to, you know, regenerate something new.
I was a part of a program when I was in a county [jail] called concert for unity. And it's a program that was different from a lot of other programs, you know, because I wasn't a guy, or type of person in prison, that was invested in reentry programs, like, I hated all reentry programs. I didn't believe that I need to be rehabilitated. I just needed to kind of be given some resources to recreate myself or just heal, because I think I went into prison hurting or damaged already, and I just needed to heal. And I wasn't going to find that and in the programs, but this program concert for unity was different because they believe in the power of a story, a myth, right. And what I had in this story, in this myth, I was the hero and I had to face my dragon, whatever that was. And in that space, right, in doing that program, right, I noticed a love for language.
And that’s what was there the whole time. Why I fell in love with reading. Or why I fell in love with the philosophers. They had this deep understanding of how English works. Of how to be articulate. And so when I went to Sing-Sing [Correctional Facility], so I went up north, I had to read things that would basically give me a language. You know, when I felt like reading Tolstoy, Hugo, Alexander Dumas, they wasn't just telling me stories, they were giving me a language to understand my own experience. And that's what happened: I became…with that language I was able to describe a lot of things to myself, and it was depressing. It was making me really depressed.
Did you keep going?
I don’t know. Because I wanted wisdom. One of my favorite stories in the Bible, one of my favorite characters in the Bible, is Solomon. I used to read the Proverbs faithfully. Out of all the books in the Bible, the thing I read the most was the Proverbs. And even in Proverbs, you know, like, they have a lot to say about words, the impact the power of language, the power of the tongue, how to control it, and how to use it for a righteous purpose. You know, I wanted wisdom. So that's why I kept reading. Even to this day, like, when I read the Bible, I still wisdom, because that's the only thing that's going to help me understand, you know, how to do the right thing in every situation. If you give me a guidance, a sense of what is right, I think that should be enough. Right? At least to keep me free.
You know, so that's why I kept reading, you know, because Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, all these philosophers, they promise wisdom for people who read their stuff. And a wisdom of language too. I've got an antique dictionary in my room. It took me seven months to save money to buy it. And I had to save—it was $64—and at the time, I was making like, 16 cents an hour, and I had to save for six or seven months. It's like a biology of language. I mean, it's not just telling you a word; it’s, like, telling you, like, the history of that word. I wanted to understand language and that’s what I kept reading. Because I knew that's all I really needed; like, you know, using language in the right way would give me the right perspective to understand what's the right thing to do at any given time. And that's what I needed to do. Know how to do to stay free.
What finally pushed you to college?
When I got to Wallkill [Correctional Facility], I got interested in entrepreneurship. Because going back to what I said earlier about how I struggle in school in my early because I moved around a lot. I had a hard, hard time making friends. And so I became quite shy. The kid in the back, you know, I was always the new kid, always the new kid, right? So I identified that I had trouble developing relationships, and I knew that if I wanted to be successful, I need to know how to talk, communicate with people, build those relationships. So I became interested in entrepreneurship. And so I got into this program, and I met a bunch of guys. And there was one guy that I met who was going to [New York University, NYU]. And I was still doing my thing, going to the library, you know, getting books, you know, and reading. And we just got real close. We would always just talk. And then he just started showing me his schoolwork. He was like, “I want you to read this essay.” And I guess him seeing me always going to the library, always reading, he was like, “Why don't sign up for NYU, like, they got applications?” And I was just like, “Nah, that's not for me.” Like, that's, that's, that's not me. It's not me.
He was, like, “Man, listen, look at me, like, like, if I could do it, like you could do it.” One of those situations, right? He was, like, “I’m doing this for my mama.” I don't care about this. He was just, like, look what I'm doing. He was just telling me how good the people were, like how, how smart and caring the professors were. And he wouldn't let up. Like, we would always end up talking for hours about, you know, a bunch of stuff after his classes. And apparently I have so much to say about the world. He was like, “Are you serious, man, like, you don't want to sign up for college?” I was, like, “I don't know, man. I don't know.” He was, like, “It's real simple. You got you GED?” And I was, like, “Yeah.” He was, like, “That I’m going to bring you a application.” He was, like, “If I give you an application, will fill it out?” He was on me. And I started to give in. And he invited me, he was part of, like, a creative publication class, and it was, like, it was like a public share. Everybody would read whatever they wrote. He was, like, “So write a poem. You can come up there and say it.” So I ended up writing a poem. You had to bring me up there. And I just remember walking away from that experience, like, I was in my element, like a fish in water. You know, like, maybe that’s where I belong? I'm a student. And that’s just something who I am and I just need to learn so maybe that’s where I’m at.
What was it about that night that made you feel like a fish in water?
Because for the first time, there was a professor there, there were students there, and it was a learning environment. Prior to that, I was always alone. Like my own learning bubble. I never shared knowledge with nobody. I never had a conversation or engaged with anybody. I’m just studying for myself. I need to figure something out, and I’m just doing it for me. That’s it. But to be in an environment to where it’s like a shared experience. Even though there were some negatives I noticed. Sometimes it feels like guys just do it just because. And I think I picked up on that and was just, like, I don't want to be in an environment where guys are just doing stuff just to do it. Like these are not authentic students, and who am I to judge?
Like, if I'm gonna put myself in an environment, I want to be around genuine thinkers, people who actually, you know, who want to talk about ideas. People who are actually doing the work, reading Plato and really questioning it, not somebody who's just trying to look like an academic, who care too much about what people think, or trying to prove something to the parole board. But actually going up there, being in the environment, walking up there, and seeing, like, how the place transformed as I went into the section that was college. So I applied, and I got in. And that’s when things really started to change.
What about the program spurred the change?
One professor basically told me that I have a philosopher's mind with a poet's heart. And it rang so true. To the point where it is like, I need to take this more serious. I need to take what they tell me more serious, right? And I read, when I got the paper, I read that sentence, like, a million times, because I was like, that's so true. Right? Like, that's who I am. And over the, over the semesters, I started to discover the poet, right? And then just understanding, like, I don't know, it was just, like, from that moment on, I just started to discover aspects of myself, or to allow myself to become, right? Or to create that, right? It awakened something inside me. And from that moment, you know, just like, I began to take college more seriously. I began to take all the work I was doing more serious. I just became more emotionally invested in it, and I wasn't so concerned about what everybody else was doing or what everybody else had to say. I was like, you know, like, something is happening here. Or can happen here. And I need to take that more serious.
It's hard to imagine that after having already spent 10 years reading and thinking, you were approaching your education in a flippant manner. What did it mean to take your education in an even more serious manner?
I took learning seriously. But I think I became open to the impact that it could have on my life. Because I was a worker, that was going to be my life. I was going to be a welder. But the professors, like that, the whole community of people, they were just so supportive of my learning, right? Things just went in a different direction real quick. So this whole thing was changing, like, how I saw myself and because of that, allowing a lot of things, like experiencing a lot of things that were possible for me. Because before it was narrow, like work. That's it. Just go home and work. Stay out of trouble. That's it. Now, it’s like hold up. It unlocked something inside of me. I just started imagining things. Because that was always a part of my experience anyway, but now I have a new scheme of things.
What role did your relationships with professors and other students play in that reimagining?
One professor told me that I really needed to be in school. I guess things like that, moments like that, I think it’s always a good experience, when the professor says to stick around after class, and then they tell you something world-shattering. You know especially in prison, they say things that melt your heart. Because it's just like, we got one narrative of you being a criminal, and like, this is what's possible for you, you have to go home and work. These are your options. And that's it. But then it's like, these people are giving you a different way. So I think them just helping me see, you know, what I can do with the tools that they would eventually give me.
What sort of tools did they eventually give you?
They gave me a language to, you know, make sense of my experience. It gave me a language to describe myself in different, in a different way.
Do you think this new language changes the way you make decisions?
I think now, I think now I have a good sense of what I value most in life. And I guess that keeps me, keeps what’s important at the forefront of my mind. Going back to virtue, you know, I want to be this temporary, prudent, patient, and fair type of person.
How has education and its tools changed the way you forge relationships?
I think it’s different now then when I was incarcerated. Because I enforced a distance between me and professors, and everybody, right?
Because I couldn't get close to people. I couldn't get close to people because I just felt like prison ruined that for me. I don’t know, it was just something, I think it was just like prison, or the fact that I committed a crime, made me having human relationships with people wrong. Like something was wrong with me being on a first-name basis with these people, like the professors, like, something was wrong with that. I would go in, say hi, and sit down. Do my work and leave. I wouldn’t, like, have a prolonged conversation with them. I think of course as the semesters went on, I started to see things differently. But I think it just like school taught me the importance of community. Everything that's happening now in my life is basically a result of me being in relationships with a lot of different people.
I just think going to school and understanding the importance of relationships, you know, and communication, sharing information, sharing your talents, you know, in service of others.
What is the importance of communication or sharing information?
It’s about connecting with people. The information that’s shared could be about someone giving you insight into a process that you didn’t know prior, you know, that could help you on your journey. If you're building a website, you meet somebody that shows you how you do that. Because everybody has goals. And because everybody's trying to get somewhere. If you establish a network that shares information about, you know, anything, you know, the possibility of us getting there, it’s a lot more probable than if that network wasn't there.
You know, like, for example, like three days before my release, like I was supposed to go to “Ready, Willing and Able.” That's a reentry program based in Brooklyn. And to get there, I would have to go to Bellevue, which is an intake shelter, and I would have to go there to get a homeless number, which would take a day or two, and then go to “Ready, Willing, and Able.” And then probably stay there for 12 months. But my school basically communicated with Thrive, without me knowing, and basically set all this up for me.
I think that was, like, only possible because what they knew about me, what they knew about my situation. So I think communication, like, kind of like, you know, establishes a network between people to allow things like that to happen at the very last minute, I guess, if that answers your question.