Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Mastering the Art of Black Male Prisoner Education

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Mastering the Art of Black Male Prisoner Education

Article excerpt

In early 1998, I received an invitation from the Rev. George "Bill" Webber of the New York Theological Seminary to speak at Sing Sing prison, the infamous correctional facility only 40 miles north of New York City. The lecture was part of a master's degree program that Webber had initiated back in 1982. My visit that May was one of the most moving and powerful experiences of my life. Several weeks ago, when Bill asked me to give lectures to this year s class in the NYTS master's program, I was eager to return.

Nothing you have seen or have experienced can prepare you for the reality of Sing Sing prison. The prison itself seems literally carved out of the side of a massive cliff that stands just above the Hudson River. As you walk through the prison, you go down a series of hallways, separated by small containments, which have two sets of steel bars on either side, secured by a prison guard. Only one set of doors opens at a time. The guard must lock and secure the first door before you're permitted to walk through the second door.

At the end of one hallway is Cell Block B. At one time, the guards informed me with considerable pride, Cell Block B was the largest incarceration area of its kind in the world. Less than 20 years ago, the prisoners of Cell Block B somehow managed to overwhelm their guards, protesting inhumane conditions. For several days, 17 correctional officers were held as hostages. But in the end, the prisoners recognized that escape was impossible, and that this act of resistance was more symbolic than anything else. To demand to be treated as a human being in an inhumane environment is to be a revolutionary.

I was taken to the rear sections of Sing Sing, which consist of religious quarters and chapels of different denominations. In a small classroom located there, the NYTS program meets five days a week. About 14 to 16 men are admitted into the program every year, with a waiting list of one or more years. Inmates at various correctional facilities throughout New York State are chosen, and are permitted to transfer to Sing Sing to participate in the master's program.

It was in this small prison classroom that I met the class of 1999. There was Louis, a 29-year-old man of Puerto Rican descent who already had spent 12 years of his brief life inside penal institutions. …

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