Father Dan offered me a life-altering opportunity that initially sounded far-fetched.

“You need to get something on your mind,” he said. “What would you say to enrolling in a few college courses?”

I struggled to smother my disbelief. I dropped out of high school and my education ended with a GED from a youth detention center in Maine. I hadn’t had any kind of formal schooling since I came to death row in 1999 at the age of 21. 

Yet, there was no doubt in my mind that I needed more than the horror of executions, more than the self-defeating behaviors that make prison violent warehouses of humanity. I needed the tools to separate myself from the person I used to be and reach for something better. The priest offered a way, and I took it. 

On death row, the value of that offer was exponentially greater because it acknowledged my humanity and potential to overcome the odds. 

Most prisoners struggle to learn, have impulse control and relational problems, and limited coping skills, which translates to an inability to set and reach goals, organize activities, or maintain a positive work ethic. Prison magnifies these problems, making stressful, difficult situations worse for people who already struggle to make effective decisions. Higher education is a way to directly challenge institutionalization, giving the incarcerated the tools to defeat criminality.

Considering the harrowing nature of prison, what, then, can be done to educate the incarcerated if it’s not supported by the environment?

After all, there is no education on death row. Our programs consist of mental health counseling, religious services, and recently a restorative justice circle. I campaigned for a GED program for the 20 guys who need one and was denied because testing occurs online and the programs department would not allow it. Another guy received a letter from the warden that said death row inmates are not incarcerated for educational or reformative purposes. 

That meant our only options for education were the privately funded correspondence programs like the one Father Dan offered me. 

The challenges of learning in prison

Learning in prison is the most difficult thing I have ever done. Although at times overwhelming, higher education changed my thinking enough that I soon recognized behaviors and peers counter-productive to my academic success and disassociated myself from them. I made better day-to-day decisions and planned for the future. It took nearly nine years because correspondence courses are much slower than online or in-person classes, but in 2013 I earned an associates in arts degree through Ohio University.

This was a huge accomplishment, considering the environment I was in. The normalcy of exceptional brutality —  this idea that penal violence and harsh treatment in prison are ordinary and deserved — heavily impacts attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors in prison. In addition to excessive punishments, no meaningful programs or positive reinforcement, people in prison are constantly told or shown they are worthless and will never be thought of as more than a crime. 

This sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy: people who are treated like crap tend to make crappy decisions. For many in prison this increases the likelihood they maintain a criminal lifestyle. Public officials naturally seize on this, enforce draconian policies that exacerbate the cycle, and never stop to consider their responsibility for the fundamental failure of prisons: that they are intended to reduce crime, not cause it.

In 2021, a unit sergeant told me and another incarcerated student on death row the prison education coordinator had terminated our access to correspondence courses. It didn’t matter that they were privately funded or we had caused no trouble. The only explanation came from the sergeant, who rather gleefully announced: “Y’all ain’t here to be rehabilitated.”

‘There will always be haters’

The attack on my higher education is nothing new. There had been similar attempts to delay and obstruct my enrollment in an effort to make me quit and dissuade others from pursuing college at all. It would take nearly a year, with a fresh round of formal grievances, letters to prison officials from outside parties, and retaining an attorney who agreed to file a federal civil suit on our behalf before I was finally able to enroll in a course. 

But the damage had been done. A new more restrictive policy was created to prevent degree programs on death row by granting access to one college course at a time, setting attainment of my bachelor’s degree back by years. This isn’t the case everywhere — in states like California, people on death row are allowed access to many of the same educational programs as the general population. 

Higher education trained me to persevere and solve problems just like this. It also gave me a deeper understanding of the historical, political, and sociological roots of this latest attack on higher education in prison. Higher education will never be universally supported by prison officials, administrators, and guards. It is both what makes pursuing a degree on the inside so difficult and success so sweet.

Prison helps no one, but higher education empowers those who are marginalized and oppressed. There will always be haters who tell you it’s impossible, naysayers who say you don’t deserve the “privilege,” and people who would rather put a boot on your neck than offer a hand up. But there are also people like Father Dan, who recognize the human potential left to rot in prison. By extending me the mercy of an education, he invested in that potential.

Having a higher education is the ultimate act of resistance, one that establishes you are more than a number or label, you are someone who meets the opposition and is victorious. 

Lyle C. May is a prison journalist, abolitionist, Ohio University alum, and member of the Alpha Sigma Lambda honor society. He is the author of Witness: An Insider’s Narrative of the Carceral State, forthcoming from Haymarket Books in fall 2023. Follow his work at lylecmay.com