“There was always this thought that you needed to deserve college to get it. The officers were like, ‘My kids can’t go to college. But these guys in prison get to go.’ So you’re hard on yourself, because you think, ‘Well, I don’t even deserve what I’m getting here.’
By the time I got to ‘94 I was in Skidmore University. I had 118 credits or something like that. And now at this point, it’s not getting taken away because I fucked up. It’s not because I went to solitary, it’s not because I made a mistake or had poor judgment. So in some ways, you’re a little resentful that 'I’m finally getting my shit together. And now I’m still not finishing after all these credits.’ And Skidmore University came in and packed up their books and their supplies with very little explanation. And then it was just gone.
And because that happened, my college hold [which prevented me from being transferred] got lifted. And I went to Sing Sing, which was closer to home. That’s about the only benefit of being in Sing Sing. It’s 200 years old, so when it rains outside, it rains inside. So getting moved to Sing Sing and losing college and going through all this was just a real 'fuck you’ in a life of many ‘fuck yous.'”
Gene Scott was sentenced to life as a 19-year-old in Oklahoma in 1990 before he was able to transfer back home to South Carolina through an interstate compact. He was in the last semester of a vocational program when the 1994 crime bill passed. Gene, who is working as a mentor to young men in the system, shared the story of a professor who made an uncanny prediction about the future of college-in-prison programs:
“The professor came in and told us the news and a lot of us in the class at that time were lifers. And he was like, 'Look guys, I got some good news and I got some bad news. The good news is that you’re graduating.’ [The bad news was that] the Pell grant would be taken from us, we would no longer be getting funding, so there wouldn’t be any [post]secondary education.
And I’ll never forget what he said. He was like, ‘Don’t get in any trouble. Stay discipline free, because what you’re getting ready to go through is called a ‘pendulum factor.’ You’re getting ready to witness the department of corrections going strictly to warehousing and then after a minimum of 20 years, it’ll sway back to rehabilitation.’ And I’ve been holding on to that for 20 some years [waiting] for it to sway back.
If you have firsthand experience of the shift in prison education as a student or educator during the 1990s, please reach out to me to contribute to a larger story Open Campus is publishing in collaboration with JSTOR Daily.