By Mr. Rodney Spivey-Jones, Visiting Scholar, Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership
That’s the long refrain reverberating in my mind the entire week I spent at Morehouse last October. I listened to stories about Dr. King, the student; discussed identity and the power of narrative at the Gaffney Lecture; and conversed with the Oprah Winfrey Scholars and the Prison Education Ambassadors. The week ended at King Chapel where I had the honor and the privilege to speak at the Crown Forum Lecture about my article “Black Disfigurement and the American Hieroglyphics of Race.”
I say honor and privilege because six years ago I was earning my bachelor’s degree while serving a twenty-years-to-life sentence in a New York state prison. I had two main priorities: graduation and survival.
Yet there I stood–-a year and three months fresh out of prison-–discussing Frantz Fanon and the utility of blackness with a room full of Morehouse scholars.
It seems fitting that I, or someone like me, should be standing in front of this audience, as a testament no less, to the importance of continuing the fight for freedom and equality.
I remember the days inside: walking from a prison cell to a computer lab to type up my latest draft of my Senior Project, a research paper required of all Bard students working toward the B.A. Each time I walked down that long, depressing corridor, I’d pass a message painted on a wall:
85% who earn a bachelor’s degree Never Return to Prison; 95% who earn a master’s degree Never Return.
Each time I passed this message, oddly, I’d think to myself: I have yet to hear about an HBCU demanding that the nation extend college opportunities to incarcerated people, many of whom are descendants of the very people for whom HBCUs were founded. Odd. The very people most in need–as were their descendants–are the people least likely to benefit.
One could spend time enumerating the differences between incarcerated citizens and newly freed captives; the parallel, however, is simple and undeniable.
HBCUs played a crucial role in formerly enslaved peoples’ efforts to carve out a place in a new society, a society they helped rebuild. College-in-prison programs (CIPs) play a similar role in the lives of incarcerated people. Most of us re-enter society with a strong network and a newfound determination and the intellectual resources to contribute to our respective communities.
Education introduced me to a world of myriad perspectives, which I learned to use as I attempt to navigate this new world–a lot has changed since 2002, the year I was sentenced. These perspectives also offered me a language to articulate my experiences and ideas. And soon I gained confidence in my own ability to craft that language, to put forth my own theoretical perspectives, to discuss and define my own condition and experiences. There are very few benefits more powerful than that. In fact, this privilege, this benefit, gave me the ability to write Black Disfigurement. I did all of this with the support of and encouragement from fellow student colleagues.
This network of support extends beyond the prison walls. It includes professors and college buddies who know someone who knows someone about an opportunity that I’d otherwise be unaware of, e.g., jobs and housing.
Sadly, I represent one of a privileged few. Most formerly incarcerated people have nothing and no one. An Individual without a network of support can experience a sort of social death, an existence in which “community” means virtually nothing and therefore transgressions abound. They are the norm.
If we cannot tear down the prison brick by brick, let’s turn it into a university buzzing with novel research and solutions to problems that cripple communities. Indeed, there is a movement underway, a New Underground Railroad, focused on doing just that. If there’s a movement worth leading, given HBCUs’ shared history and mission, should it not be this one? Is it not the next logical step, one consistent with the founding of historically black colleges and universities?
Mr. Spivey-Jones was a visiting scholar in the Andrew Young Center in the Fall of 2022. He graduated from Bard College, through the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) with a degree in Social Studies. His story is featured in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s award-winning documentary, College Behind Bars. Here is the PBS link to an episode that features Mr. Spivey Jones: “Every Single Word Matters.“ In addition to the article mentioned in this blog entry, Mr. Spivey-Jones has also published “College Programs in Prison Show the Value of Educating Every American.” During his on-campus visit to Morehouse, Mr. Spivey-Jones provided a Crown Forum talk titled, “A Conversation about Black Bodies” (see here). Mr. Spivey-Jones also participated in a “Talk Back” session with Oprah Winfrey Scholars and recorded an episode of the AYCGL student podcast, More Conversations, with an AYC-HEP Student Ambassador, Mr. Calvin Bell III (see here).