Education and Second Chances by Cantrell Shawn-Norman Garner

A JSTOR Access in Prison Second Chance Essay about discovering self-worth and purpose in a prison-based education.

Education and Second Chances by Cantrell Shawn-Norman Garner

What can I say? The very reason I have a second chance is solely contributed to education. Education has catapulted me to heights I would never have had the courage of exploring had I not indulged in college. My maturation was made possible because of education. Up until I found education, I had no hope or morale.

I am a currently incarcerated  individual serving an indeterminate sentence for armed robbery. In 2015, the Michigan court sentenced me to 9 years to the department of corrections. I have approximately 14 months remaining on my sentence before I am eligible for release on parole. Because of education I believe without any doubt that I will make my first parole date. My institutional record is the next closest thing to impeccable. I have been in zero fights, have not partook in drugs or drinking and I have maintained an unblemished rapport with all staff and faculty within the department of corrections.

Education kept me focused and grounded. It made me believe in myself. I honestly used to think that because of my feculent and heinous transgressions  I did not deserve a second chance. I knew that I had ruined my life by committing crime. Although alive, my spirit was dead. I became incarcerated at the age of 22 and I am now 30 years old. But it was at the age of 25 when I discovered College in prison.

After matriculation into Jackson college, I found again a sense of pride in myself. I initially felt that I probably would not have made anything out of this opportunity but boy was I sadly mistaking. Education became the staple of my foundation. I excelled beyond my wildest imagination. I was also taken back by the fact that prison actually offer college to convicted felons and that they actually supported us. That was really what empowered me. I had a tremendous team of professors, corrections officers and prison counselors advocating for me, for us, incarcerated students.

It was in the fall of 2017 when I had embarked on my educational journey and college. My first time enrolled in college, I began referring to myself as a college student although I was still incarcerated. the prison no longer seemed to be a prison anymore. In my eyes I saw a college campus. My housing unit had become my dorm room. The mess hall had become my commons. The gym had become my pavilion. The school building had become my classroom. The paradigm shift had suddenly flipped on me and I had transcended myself beyond what the naked eye could discern.

Enrolled at Jackson college, I managed to enroll myself in a 400 level collegiate course at the prominent Michigan State University and its School of Social work. I took a specialized Inside Out course whose curriculum revolved around social policies on criminality, criminalization and the criminal justice system. It was there where I began to reshape the way I perceived rehabilitation and psychology.

I took those tools and teachings and applied them to the duration of my tenure at Jackson college and as well as incarceration. I somehow felt that I was now equipped with the ability to dictate my outcome. Before, I nonchalantly believed that whatever happened to me was ordained and it was the karma to my wrongdoings and I had to just accept it. I mean, prison was my comeuppance and because I accepted responsibility and took accountability for my actions, I believe that whatever happened to me, I deserved it.

But education made its way into my life and rerouted my entire system. I no longer played the victim. I stopped minimizing, justifying and neutralizing my behavior. I was culpable for all that happened in my life and I had to find a way to remove everything that I was never supposed to be so that  who I really am could shine through.

By my second semester at Jackson college, I had earned myself and not at the Dean's List in which I eventually went on to earn five consecutive spots on. With that, I was solicited by the most prestigious, oldest and largest Honor Society serving two-year colleges, globally. Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society honors those who display academic excellence. I was inducted and acknowledged for my hard work and I was honored to be a member.

When I wrapped up my final semester at Jackson College in 2020 I had obtained three associate degrees in Business Administration, General Studies and Arts. I also obtained two skilled certifications in business management and business administration. Furthermore, in the same year I received a scholarship award of $250 from Phi Theta Kappa for winning an essay contest. I was the top winner throughout the entire state of michigan. I completed my college education at Jackson College with a cumulative grade point average of 3.71 and earned myself 89 credit hours.

I then went on to enroll in Siena Heights University in Adrian Michigan with obtaining my bachelor degree on my mind. This four-year university offered correspondence course through the department of corrections. My first year I enrolled part-time and took only two courses, a philosophy course and an ethics course. I earned a perfect 4.0 grade point average in my ethics course and a 3.5 grade point average in my philosophy course. Unfortunately, I had to go on a lengthy hiatus to fulfill obligations to earn my freedom.

In May 2024 I am due to parole home. My second chance and new lease on life is looking pretty swell for me. with my second chance, it is my hope that I'm able to pick back up with advancing my education. earning my M.B.A. (Masters of Business Administration) is my top priority. I've not decided yet on a university to transfer to or attend. I will put one foot In front another when it is time to cross that bridge.

In the end, college and education has provided me with so many opportunities. Education has increased my employability and marketability. With my educational accolades, I am qualified for an array of jobs and careers. I truly have a leg up once I return to society. Having an education as well decreases my chances of recidivism immensely. My second chance I will serve with a purpose. I have become an ambassador of education and goodwill. I am extremely grateful and appreciative for the opportunities that prison has offered. I attest that education can and will indeed open up second chances for any and all who has the willingness to want better for themselves no matter what their circumstances. I will always and forever advocate for education.

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Editor's Note:

Cantrell’s essay taught me that people in prison can be part of greek-letter honor societies. The FAQ on Phi Theta Kappa's site reads: “We even offer membership to incarcerated students who are seeking a second chance in life – Phi Theta Kappa doesn't hinder anyone from that” and that inclusion for people attending college while in prison is wonderful. I remember wishing I could be part of a sorority to complete my college experience. My heart beat a little faster when Cantrell shared that his identity as a college student transformed how he related to the prison environment. That feeling of being something other than a prisoner was relatable. I asked some BPI alum if they recognized themselves in Cantrell’s observation, and that shift in self-perception was the only thing we’ve unanimously agreed upon in seven years.

Cantrell also mentioned his need to take a hiatus from education to “secure his freedom.” In most states, earning college credits will not count toward consideration for an earlier, or merit, release since it is not a Department of Corrections program. People are shunted away from college to take a vocation course like gardening or cosmetology so they have a chance to leave prison a few months sooner. Most of those programs do not translate to a license or accreditation they can use once released. Last year, a BPI graduate successfully lobbied NYS to change the law to include college, and it passed.

Finally, Cantrell sent a photo in his cap and gown for us to use. Graduation ceremonies for students who are incarcerated are becoming more common as colleges return to prisons. These ceremonies are vital acknowledgments of achievement and this photo ensures the rest of the world sees Cantrell the way he sees himself today: shining through.