Editor’s Note: This post was written and submitted by 2019-2020 International President James Elliott. It has been edited for clarity and length.
The first week of my term as International President provided me with a life-changing opportunity. It began the evening of April 11, and I was hours away from riding with our President and CEO Dr. Lynn-Tincher Ladner through the heart of Mississippi and Alabama to Ingram State Technical College, where we would charter Phi Theta Kappa’s first chapter behind bars.
Sitting in my hotel room in Jackson, Mississippi, I couldn’t help but reflect on the many great civil rights activists who walked through this city fighting the civil injustices of their time. The feeling resonated with me, so I headed out into the streets. As I walked, I thought about my struggle in my new freedom from prison. Navigating the empty city blocks, I felt a deep connection inside telling me that I must join the ranks of those that came before me.
In late 2016, after serving nearly six years in prison, I walked out of a work release facility in Wilmington, Delaware. My time incarcerated exposed me to a huge problem that plagues our country. With 2.3 million men and women currently incarcerated, and a disproportionate number of them people of color, it is clear that the prison system has become a racial caste system. This revelation and exposure convicted me during my incarceration. I’d heard countless stories of other inmates explaining how they ended up in prison; it was no coincidence that all of them sounded the same.
Lost in thought, I found myself at a familiar sight, the Old Greyhound Bus Station. This past August, during my trip to Phi Theta Kappa’s Headquarters with the Middle States Regional Officer Team, we stayed at the hotel across from this site. This station served as the destination site for the Freedom Riders in 1961, and many of them were arrested and jailed in Jackson. These arrests became a tool of disenfranchisement. Once arrested, civil rights could be stripped and second-class citizenship would begin. For people of color, this is when the slave trade transformed into the criminal justice system.
When I returned to my hotel room, my brain was still wandering. Staring out the window, my eyes caught the Jackson Courthouse. This made me think about the Honors Study Topic theme “Visions of Justice.” Do we live in a just society? Is justice even obtainable? What would Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcom X say today about mass incarceration? The anger welled up inside me. I was disappointed in myself for committing a felony and being sentenced to prison. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and so many others fought hard for me to have freedoms and opportunities that I had taken for granted.
Back to Prison, but on the Other Side
My alarm woke me at 3 a.m., and I almost thought my experience last night was a dream. For the next four hours, Dr. Tincher-Ladner and I traveled through the country roads of Mississippi and Alabama. We discussed the past year of Phi Theta Kappa and what the future holds for our beloved Society. In the back of my head were still the thoughts of those civil rights activists who came before me.
Draper Correctional Facility is located behind Ingram State Technical College’s building. Exiting the car, my nerves hit me and doubt crept in my mind. I wondered, “Do I really want to go into this prison?” As we walked up to the gate, the guard stopped us. There was some confusion about whether I was allowed to enter. It is typical prison protocol to deny ex-offenders’ access inside a prison. With patience, Dr. Tincher-Ladner assured me that everything would be fine. The gate slowly slid open, and we walked into the penitentiary.
The locked doors, the stone-cold faces and submissiveness of the inmates, and the constant officers hovering instantly brought me back to my time in prison. Looking into the eyes of the inmates, I saw the pain, anger, and despair. I knew exactly how they felt. I wanted to get out of there. In these moments of doubt, I remembered my experience the night before. Those Freedom Riders who knew they were ultimately going to get arrested. They had to have experienced what I was feeling at that moment, and I had to be brave.
The men were ushered in, and I took my place in the front of the room. For once, I was on the other side. As the ceremony started, I thought about my time in prison. I remembered being the one told to stay in my place, don’t speak unless spoken to, and avoid making eye contact with a special guest. When it was time for me to talk, I was ready. It seemed like my years in prison had prepared me for this exact moment.
The men clung to every word I spoke. For the men, seeing someone who was once in their shoes makes transformation seem obtainable. The mutual respect between myself and the inmates was felt. Before leaving the men’s prison, I had a few short moments with the inmates, many of us exchanging a dap and an embrace. No words were needed.
As the time in Draper came to a close, I found myself wanting to stay. I didn’t want to leave them, but it was time to go to our second destination.
I barely remember the van ride to the women’s prison. Much like Delaware, Alabama has only one women’s correctional facility. This time, our entry went smoothly. We sat down to eat lunch, and I slowly started to process what was actually taking place.
There I was, sitting with prison administrators, eating lunch from a local Alabama sandwich shop in a prison. When I was incarcerated, one of my jobs was cleaning offices throughout the prison. When I entered a room to clean, the occupants would look down on me as I changed the trash and looked longingly at their outside lunches. I sat there comfortably while I knew all throughout the facility, women were battling to maintain their dignity and sense of self-worth. It wasn’t sitting right with me.
I then joined a conversation about what Alabama was doing to try and change their criminal justice system, and I realized how important Ingram State Technical College truly is. With a national recidivism rate of nearly 68 percent, it’s safe to say that, nationally, our Department of Corrections are failing.
What many don’t know is that when a student receives their associate degree, the recidivism rate drops to 14 percent. Ingram understands this. They know and believe that education is the answer to rehabilitation. Ingram is leading the way in making the state of Alabama a safer place, not by imposing harsh sentences and beefing up law enforcement, but by providing the opportunity of an education.
Empowered by this thought and still riding high from the speech at the men’s prison, I gave the women inmates all the energy I had left. I needed them to see the gift they had in these dark hours. The gift that pulled me out of my darkest moment; that gift of education that has allowed me to reach heights I never dreamed of. Yes, prison is awful, but this education will be the key to a better life. As I finished speaking, sobs filled the room.
Something happened in these prisons on that day: lives were changed, including my own.
I see myself now moving into this role as an activist. I am joining the ranks of those that came before me. Empowered by my experience, I challenge you to think about those life-changing moments that have developed a passion within you.