The Turnaround By Terry Robinson

JSTOR Access in Prison Second Chance Essay from Death Row

The Turnaround By Terry Robinson

When I dropped out of high school in the 9th grade to pursue a life of petty crime, I unknowingly set my course to prison. I traded the learning for larceny, varsity for vandalism, and academics for mere street cred. I saw school as a hindrance, an anchor preventing my popularity and success, and so I went from molding in the classroom a promising future to modeling street corner behavior. I wore my reputation like a mannerism and sharpened my tongue on the vernacular of bullies and drug dealers. I tossed aside the work ethic instilled in me since I was a kid to chase luxury that wasn't earned. My growing ambitions for the fast, easy money weighed my pockets with greater odds of incarceration as I was on the fast track to the only place I could end up without the adequate skills in education. I went on to suffer some injustice in my life but as a criminal I would more often escape culpability.

Ultimately, I would find myself on N.C. Death Row where injustice plays out every day - the injustice of executing criminals as a remedy for our lack of faith in redeemability, and the injustice of diverting educational resources in the belief that men sentenced to die are unfit to learn. The penal system is a warehousing enterprise with an agenda that is counterproductive to the correction of criminal behavior, therefore minimizing resources furthers that agenda as there is only one real prevention to recidivism: education.

Education inspires second chances because it invokes a sense of self worth. The very standards by which prior we made poor decisions are now fostered by our academic achievements. The few classes I was fortunate to attend here on Death Row imbued me with renewed confidence in my future. I now understand my value, and I believe that I am deserving of a decent life unimpeded by shackles and bars. Education in effect reduces the rate of recidivism, a cause we all have a moral obligation to. We cannot continue to be a society that assigns accountability for wrongs without recognizing the redeeming quality. When we invest in education in the prisons we are saying with some assurance that second chances can be earned, and seldom is that which is earned through dedicated work so easily squandered.

Often enough, the people who land in the prisons do so after finding themselves faced with limited opportunities, but education opens the doors to endless opportunities while closing the window on poor, perpetuated behavior. Education also inspires second chance because it equips us with the tools to teach others who are bound for prison. The principle is not only to effect positive change in one's own life but to encourage positivity in the lives of others. We do that through the service of teaching about our experiences of trials and triumphs. Second chances are more than a privilege provided, it is the duty to make a difference when we can.

Simply put, education inspires second chances because it is a badge of validation, a certificate to dream big. Having an education sparks the determination to live productive lives and the responsibility to make better choices. There are currently no classes being offered on N.C.Death Row yet there remains a remnant of hope and aspiration from a time when those classes once existed here, however for those few men who were exonerated from Death Row after decades without education - I wonder how well they'll fare when it comes to second chance.

Editor's Note:

I received this essay as an email attachment that did not originate inside a prison. A common misconception about Death Row is they are morose, hopeless spaces without humanity - yet here we have Terry with enough outside support to ensure we received his essay.  Despite the technological and physical deprivations that are part of Death Row, Terry has maintained relationships - and optimism. He defies the stereotypes in a few pithy paragraphs.

His observations about the dearth of educational opportunities available to people on Death Row and what it means when people are exonerated from that most final  of punishments made his submission stand out. I was moved by the notion of people on his unit who were clinging to educations they'd received decades ago to continue to strive for...something.