This article was published in partnership with the Prison Journalism Project, an independent national news organization that trains incarcerated writers to become journalists and publishes their writing. Subscribe to their newsletter here.
What are jails and prisons for?
Many members of society may say, “Punish people who have committed a crime or misdemeanor against society.” A smaller part can say: “Rehabilitation”.
My name is Jeffrey Shockley. I reside in a Pennsylvania prison, serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. You can also call my death sentence incarceration.
I am one of thousands of similarly convicted people who have changed their lives for the better in prison. Despite our growth, we are constantly scrutinized, criticized and marginalized. Politicians use us and our crimes as ammunition against reformers who want to change outdated ideologies and laws that needlessly keep people locked up for decades.
As I sit here in the 23rd year of my sentence, I have demonstrated a positive mindset, changed my behaviors, and built an institutional resume of educational courses and rehabilitation programs. I am not the same person today as I was 23 years ago. I am no longer a problem child behaving destructively.
When you break prison rules, whether for a minor offense like lending and borrowing, or a more serious offense like fighting, you are charged with misconduct. In my two decades in prison, I received only one misconduct report and spent 30 days in the hole for it. I plead guilty to owning an extra razor – which I still maintain I didn’t have – in hopes of keeping a job that I ended up losing anyway.
It is commendable that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections offers basic education and GED courses, as well as various professional courses, for people who want to improve. I have been able to participate in many programs and courses that broaden the mind and give hope.
I want to have concrete tools to help others and be able to support myself if I ever go out.
The prisons also offer courses in welding, computer-aided design, plumbing and electricity through the maintenance department. Correctional industries teach metal fabrication and machining, where inmates learn how to make license plates.
One of the programs I participated in was the University of Pittsburgh’s Inside-Out prison exchange program. The program has since expanded to other Pennsylvania prisons. As part of the exchange program, faculty teach college-level courses in English literature, composition, and creative writing. The unique aspect of the course is that the students join the inmates inside for the lessons.
These lessons melted the prison walls for me. When we walked into the classroom, we were all just students, together as peers. We handed in weekly homework and discussed topics such as prison reform and what social justice means to someone who may never be free.
This experience has touched me in so many positive ways. It helped me grow as a writer. I explored subjects that I would never have thought of in prison, in particular the fate of immigrant children. In one class, we read Daniel Beaty’s play, “Emergency”. The icing on the cake was getting the actor into jail and performing his play live.
It’s easy to think your life is over when you’re serving a life sentence, but that’s not the case for me. Being able to participate and grow through these opportunities has given me hope.
There is a thought experiment that I think explains my point well. Imagine a person getting a job flipping hamburgers. They continually demonstrate quality and efficiency, but their supervisor still does not believe they are capable of it. They can leave to find a better job.
A person serving a life sentence does not have the luxury of leaving if there is no room for growth. We continue to sit here for decades, regardless. But because of the courses and programs, and our desire to change, many of us have excelled beyond real or imagined expectations. The problem is that so many of us are stuck here, aging and devouring taxpayers’ money despite our excellence.
As things stand, investments in us often don’t come back to our communities at home – communities that we have damaged and want to repair. Wouldn’t youth benefit from those of us who are no longer young, but whose experiences could help deter today’s violence?
Many of us would love the chance to strengthen and encourage the communities in which we lived. We want to share our knowledge and experience with the younger generations we left behind to make sure they don’t follow the same path as us.
What’s the point of rehabilitation if the only part of us society sees is the part we’ve ultimately left behind?
Philadelphia native Jeffrey Shockley is a writer currently serving a life sentence in Fayette State Correctional Institution.
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