At the time I was driven by the need to share the gift of education with some of my friends who have none. I’m not qualified to teach them what most seniors in high school already know, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The more I though on this and bounced the idea off a few people, the stronger my desire to make it happen – a GED program for the 20 or so NC death row prisoners who need one.
It shouldn’t be a big deal considering every single prisoner in NC has an opportunity to go through a GED program—except the men on death row. Years ago, prior to the elimination of Pell grants and prison education programs in the mid 90s, even death row had access to the Wake Tech Community College GED program at Central Prison. When President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA) our access to the GED program ended even if the program itself did not.
A GED, the reasoning went, is a privilege and murderers who face the death penalty are not there to learn or be rewarded or consume more tax payer money, they are there to be executed. Not everyone in the public felt this way, mainly the people who had loud voices in the media and legislature, those with the tightest grip on the prison system. Over twenty years have passed since the creation of the VCCLEA, and even Bill Clinton admits it was a mistake to enact the bill, one that has contributed to the mass incarceration of millions.
In the last three years, Dr. Peter Kuhns has changed the status quo of “NO PROGRAMS” on death row by implementing a number of mental health classes that grant our population with rewarding things to do. Despite already being occupied with privately sponsored correspondence courses from Ohio University and the Center for Legal Studies, the mental health curriculum has expanded my thinking and social skills. They are, in conjunction with my other studies and writing, partly responsible for the creation of this blog.
There has been a noticeable shift in attitudes on death row due to the opportunity to engage in learning activities. Conversations are a little deeper. People encourage one another and are more willing to listen. Drama, Creative Writing, Speech & Debate, Restorative Justice, Art, Chess, Mindfulness & Meditation – these classes gave us an outlet to grow and create in ways nobody thought possible.. Time, patience, the kindness and dedication of Dr. Kuhns and his staff, and opportunity have allowed us to show there are men on death row hungry to learn.
I know that hunger. It’s there in the morning when the lights blink on and trails me into the night when sleep refuses to come. I was fortunate enough to receive my GED at the Maine Youth Center as an adolescent, but failed to fully appreciate it. At 17, education was a chore rather than a necessity to understanding how the world functions, a stepping stone for employment, and the beginning of the rest of my life.
Twenty years later education has become the key to my survival on death row. It is indeed a privilege to some degree, but one that should be granted to those who need it the most. Everybody in prison needs to be educated. Finding a way to provide a basic education for death row prisoners shouldn’t be an impossible feat, but it is an uphill battle, one I’m willing to take on. Cynicism was the response of some of the guys I mentioned the idea to. Skepticism and amusement from some staff. Who does this guy think he is, advocating for a program on death row? This look would appear as if I asked what they thought about space elevators. Interesting in theory but . . . not in your lifetime.