What does “Higher Education” mean to me?

By Patrick Clarkson


I am crying and I don’t know why.

Time is not promised, yet it is given so freely. I am nearing the end of an 11 year commitment of incarceration and I am having a difficult time coping with the blatant fact that the people tasked with administering & monitoring my rehabilitation could care less about its success.

As an offender you are immediately stripped of your Pride, Dignity, & Respect. Your Identity! You are dehumanized by the correctional staff on a regular basis (some more often than others because of the hue of their skin). You are forced to live in conditions unfit for any sane, healthy, & proactive human being. Danger and disease are disciples to discipline. You are not allowed to converse with those with whom our supervision has been entrusted. You are not equals. You are beneath them. As a matter of fact, you are beneath society, the trash that either is stuck in a repetitive recycling process, or buried in a mound with the rest.

There is one thing that made me feel empowered during my incarceration: Higher Education. The opportunity to re-engage with furthering my education was sort of the gateway to re-engaging with myself. Being stuck in a world where obstacles are constantly thrown in your path, with the intention for you to fail, has a looming effect on the psyche. You start to believe that you are trash, a monster, a thug, a menace, until you wake up in disciplinary segregation (the Hole) after having a mental episode, triggered from the stress of feeling caged in with your back to the wall. A human being can only endure so much trauma. Higher education has been my medicine.

The PEP program here at MECC has hands down been the greatest, most rewarding educational experience of my life so far. The opportunity to remove myself from the general population for those in-class/tutoring moments and in order have in-depth conversations with productive/proactive members of society about a broad range of topics and not feel demeaned or belittled is like being born again. It was a reeducation of self. Interests and knowledge that were buried in me, beneath all the years of self-hate, all the years of incarceration, all the inhumane treatment, just resurfaced with an intense urge to grow… And then something weird happens that isn’t suppose to happen. These innocent students & professors that reach us from all different walks of life aren’t afraid of us when they meet us. They are not nervous because they are sitting in a room full of thieves, dealers, users, & murderers. No. They are not nervous because they are not here to strengthen our weaknesses; instead they are here to assist in improving our strengths.

I am grateful for my acceptance and participation in the PEP program, for I have bumped my head a few times since I began. I have been kicked out of the program once for going to the Hole, and recently I was behind on coursework due to another trip to the Hole. This issue of discipline amidst rehabilitation needs to be addressed. If you want me to return to society with a love all, respect all, help all attitude then you have to send me home with those attitudes.

Make sense out of this: You are in PEP. You end up going to the Hole. While you are down there you are missing out on vital coursework, But the course work is virtual via tablets and everyone has one. The Hole is equipped with the mechanisms to make the tablets fully functional while down there, but they won’t give them to you while you are in the Hole. Counter productive right?!?  Even more so when you look at it from this perspective. They make sure that all the G.E.D students get their course work while down there, so why not the PEP students? Certain conduct calls for punishment. I get that. Why, though, take away the key that will unlock the door to rehabilitation and remove the lock completely from the door to recidivism!?!

2020 was not a favorable year for anyone. From the uprising of many voices in contest against police brutality and racial inequality to the coronavirus and the mass pandemic that ensued. From the millions of citizens who were forced into unemployment, unable to provide for their families sufficiently to the billions of children who were uncomfortably left to navigate a new world of virtual learning. And no one will ever forget the 4 year, 24/7, phenomena known as Donald J. Trump.

2020 will no doubt be a year etched into the book of life, but none of this would mean a thing to me; none of this knowledge and awareness of the world around me and the ability to interpret and translate it into my own thoughts would even be present if I had not taken the interest in using this “dead time” to further my education. The Department of Correction is not rehabilitating me. I am rehabilitating me, and the staff and undergraduate volunteers of the PEP program, and all the generous contributors and philanthropist from Washington University are providing that hope that an offender needs when navigating his way out of the systematic trap that is the billion dollar corporation of Mass Incarceration.

As tears assault my cheek, I am hit with a revelation. I now understand why I am crying. It isn’t because I am nearing the end of my sentence, nor am I stressed from the time I have left. No. I realize I am crying because  I know that I am a beautiful human being, that I will be successful, that I am not the decision I made 11 years ago. All of this has been forgotten somewhere along this traumatic journey. Higher education woke me from my lower self and elevated me. Amplified me.

The goal is to stay woke.

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