Letters from John: A Prison Education After a High School of Hard Knocks

This is Part 7 of my series “Letters from John.” In Part I, I wrote, “I’m in a beautifully loving marriage to John Dukes, a man who is truly one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. My husband is also incarcerated. During our friendship, courtship, and marriage, John and I have spent a lot of time tracing his trajectory from the various schools he attended as a boy in NYC and on Long Island  to his current status as an inmate in a New York State correctional facility. Part 2 is here, Part 3  is here, Part 4 is here,  Part 5 is here, and Part 6 is here.

I spent this weekend visiting with my husband in the prison infirmary. Although he was not feeling well, we had the best time talking and laughing with one another. We always do. Our conversations span a slew of different topics yet, somehow, education always manages to weave its way into our talks. John expressed some bewilderment as to what he should write for his next blog submission, considering that he has walked the reader through the highlights of much of his K-12, school-to-prison pipeline education.* I asked him about his experiences with education since being in prison — not the formal education that comes with lesson plans and a teacher-facilitator. This education comes from learning to navigate life in prison as a young man with only a high-school education from which to draw.

Having spent the last year and a half experiencing prison from the perspective of a visitor, I, like many of you I’m sure, am intrigued by how one continues the process of self-edification while dwelling in such an intellectually-impoverished environment. What does one learn once they go to prison? With the school-to-prison pipeline being as pervasive as it is, some of our former students are gaining a substantial amount of education from behind prison bars. The following is my beloved John’s account of his personal growth and development that he has managed to pursue while incarcerated. Having known him since he was a teenage boy,  I am so proud of the man John has become while serving his sentence.

As an urban educator, I am thoroughly concerned about my students, some of whom will inevitably end up in prison themselves because of the school-to-prison pipeline. This grim knowledge makes my husband’s words all the more poignant — for all of us.

Dear Vivett,

Education comes in many varied forms. To know that you’ve learned something is when you actually apply that knowledge. I have learned that I never want to hurt anyone again. The situation that ended me up in the infirmary got to my heart, my core, and revealed this truth to me. I think the only way you get to that core that I’m speaking of is by exposing yourself to other people. You only truly know yourself when you’re around other people; everything else is who you think you are.

The education I’ve learned in prison is that people are misunderstood. It’s not an “us”‘versus “them”. We, as humans, have a lot more in common than we choose to realize or admit.

There are a lot of downtrodden people here just as there are in the world. A lot of people have great thoughts, but don’t even know that they, the individual, matter. I learned that by listening, and not just to their voices. I listened to their anger — what’s behind their anger. The anger is easy for me to decode more than any other emotion mainly because I have been there myself.

When I hear one’s anger, I hear sorrow. I hear fear. I hear hopelessness. I hear a crying out for assistance, regardless of how gruesome he/she might appear on the outside.

Recently, I entertained the angry conversation of a big man (in stature). What I heard from him was a plea — a plea for a hug. He was trying to get me riled up. I acknowledged his grievance calmly. This caused him to display a puzzled look as if to say, “How does he know me…?” The situation was defused.
Anger, for many, is the only language they know. Are we listening? How are we responding?

Love, John

*Note to readers: the ACLU defines the school-to-prison pipeline as “a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse, or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished, and pushed out.”

What do you think?

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