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How Prisoners and Jailers Can Work Together to Keep Kids Educated - by John J. Lennon

May 11, 2017


This past Halloween, a dozen or so lifers, myself included, sat in a conference room in Attica State Prison in western upstate New York. A man named Anthony Haynes was making his pitch: He wanted each of us, and whoever else we could convince back in the prison population, to consider giving money to his cause. Sure, he was asking only the price of a candy bar each month. But Haynes had been a jailer for more than 33 years, a warden of several different federal prisons — all of which made him the last person these prisoners would want to give a dime to. He got $3,000 from the lifers that day.

Haynes is the executive director of the Creative Corrections Education Foundation, a non-profit that provides scholarships for college-bound young people aged 18 to 27 who have a parent in prison, on parole, or off parole. Haynes is a black man in his late 50s with a smooth delivery and a seen-it-all swagger that one picks up over a career in federal corrections. These days, he drives state to state, visiting jails and prisons, asking for donations to CCEF.
 
In 2012, Percy Pitzer, another retired federal warden, founded CCEF using $150,000 of his own money. Today, the organization has raised over $60,000 from prisoners in 12 different states, alongside $160,000 from businesses and philanthropists. Every dollar of the prisoners’ donations goes toward scholarships. Having prisoners contribute, Pitzer believes, is an essential part of the venture. I agree. It will attract other donors, I think, because people like helping people who try to help themselves.“When I was a warden, I used to walk in the visiting rooms and see the kids. And I realized that we’d soon be seeing them.”
 
Fathers anywhere care deeply about their children growing into a successful and happy life. Realizing they can’t do much to foster those plans in prison is crushing. So when Pitzer and Haynes came for the first time and pitched us, in May of 2014, some of my fellow inmates said they felt empowered by the idea. A few of them thought it was a scam. The leaders among us did our due diligence; when it checked out, we invited CCEF back to Attica.
 
The Attica prisoners at that 2016 Halloween gathering were mostly — like me — convicted murderers in leadership positions of prisoner organizations, such as Attica Lifers, Veterans, Hispanics in Progress, African American Cultural Studies, and the Inmate Liaison Committee. The $3,000 donation was raised from fundraisers held by these organizations. Organization representatives are allowed to walk the tiers of cell blocks selling things like candy, cakes, trail mix, and coffee creamer to other prisoners in the general population who have money to spare in their accounts.
 
“As you can imagine, at first we were skeptical about your organization,” said a prisoner named Louis Hicks, president of AACS, who has long dreadlocks and no neck after lifting weights in the yard for 20 years. “But we checked you guys out — and you’re the real deal.”

Haynes understood the skepticism. “Look, the Bureau of Prisons has given me and my family a comfortable life,” he told the prisoners (and the assembled administrators in suits). “When I started my career, there were a few hundred thousand prisoners in America. When I retired a few years ago, there were 2.4 million. When Percy Pitzer told me about CCEF, I saw it as an opportunity to give back.”

After Haynes finished his presentation, an Attica administrator presented him with a $3,000 check explaining that it was from us prisoners. We weren’t allowed to touch the check. A counselor appeared with a camera. It was the perfect photo opportunity: smiling prisoners surrounding a smiling warden.

Who would have thought it possible — especially in Attica? In the 1971 uprising there, 43 people died. Today, Attica is still very much us-versus-them. But in that room and in that moment, we saw eye to eye. I spoke to Joseph Noeth, a high-and-tight 40-something military type who was the acting superintendent of Attica at the time, and he told me just how good he thought CCEF was. A father himself, Noeth seemed to know that the other fathers in the room just wanted what he wanted — the best for their kids. We shook hands and went our way, some of us back to our cells, others back to their offices and posts, Haynes back on the road.

When Pitzer came to Attica the first time, he hit us with a reality that was hard to hear. “When I was a warden,” he said, “I used to walk in the visiting rooms and see the kids. And I realized that we’d soon be seeing them.”

Nearly half of locked-up juveniles have a locked-up parent, according to the American Correctional Association. “It’s a disgusting situation,” said a friend of mine whose son is in Attica with him (he requested that I not use his name). “I see him in the corridors every day.”

The fast life came to a halt for me in January of 2002, when I was 24. Convicted of murder and selling drugs, I was given a sentence of 28 years to life. I never had any kids, and maybe that was best. (My father was never in prison. Nor was he ever in my life — he drowned himself in the bottle and blew his head off when I was 10.) But, over the years, I’ve watched men, smiling, heads to one side, doting on their kids in the visiting rooms. When those kids became adolescents, the visits became more serious — fathers with clenched jaws and furrowed brows schooling sons on how things really were. They knew the game. They knew nobody ever won.

Sadly, I’ve heard about some of those same kids getting shot and killed. I’ve hugged and cried and prayed with heartbroken fathers. In March of 2015, during an Attica church service, the chaplain called a prisoner named Steffen (in for murder himself) to the front of the congregation and told us Steffen’s son Tyquan had been shot dead in a car on a street in Syracuse, New York. He’d been 15 years old. We prayed and asked God to ease Steffen’s hurt. It was the same hurt, of course, that we’d once heaped on the parents of those we killed — a shameful and vicious cycle.

Almost seven million American children have a parent who’s been caught in the criminal justice system in some form or another, and more than two million children are growing up on the outside with a parent on the inside. So it shouldn’t be surprising that prisoners want to be part of the solution. Of course we do. I mean, it was eyebrow-raising when I first learned that an old white warden from Texas with a big fat pension wanted to help my peers’ kids go to college and break the cycle that has kept his peers so comfortably employed.

Still, someone needs to provide educational opportunities for prisoners and their children, and the government isn’t doing it. I’ve written a lot about the availability of college classes in prison. Should the government reinstate Pell Grants for prisoners? Should it be left to philanthropists, as would have occurred in Ayn Rand’s universe — and as things seem currently to be? With a new administration so enthusiastic about private prisons, positive reform right now seems distant.

 
I was a dopey bastard when I came to prison. I learned to write in a privately funded creative writing workshop, earned an associate’s degree in a pilot program funded by Warren Buffett’s sister Doris, and now I’m finishing my bachelor’s degree in another Buffett-backed college program. Over the past few years, I’ve also published articles — all because philanthropists funded the educational opportunities that helped me think critically and discover an untapped talent. So it feels good to see my peers wanting to pay it forward. (I should say that I was an inactive member of the Attica Lifers for the past few years, and it was my peers on their own who orchestrated that $3,000 donation to CCEF.)  As it happens, Attica’s prisoner organizations aren’t the only ones supporting CCEF in a big-name New York prison. After Haynes and Pitzer initially pitched Attica in 2014, they went to Sing Sing, a maximum-security prison just north of New York City, and received $1,500 from another prisoner organization, Latinos Unidos. I was transferred to Sing Sing in November of 2016. In an orientation class, a 50-something prisoner facilitator named James Syphrett, who has a great sense of humor, sports a kufi, and earned a master’s degree from Sing Sing’s Theological Seminary, told us all about the various volunteer opportunities at the prison. He also told us this: “When you get your commissary sheets, you’ll see CCEF — it’s a fundraiser selling lollipops, and the profits go to college scholarships for our kids.” I perked up at this. Syphrett went on: “It’s for real. A guy who lockers a few cells down from me has a daughter in college who recently got $1,500.”