Prison journalist calls for more college classes

By John J. Lennon July 27, 2021

John J. Lennon by Christaan Felber

Editor’s Note: John J. Lennon is serving a sentence of 28 years to life at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York. He was convicted of second-degree murder in July 2004. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, The Atlantic, New York magazine, Sports Illustrated and Esquire, where he is a contributing editor.

When I saw the prison counselor for what's called a quarterly review, she asked through a mask if my emergency contact had changed. Any safety concerns? Sexual abuse? (She has to ask per federal law.) I said no. She faced a computer screen, which was filled with different files on me: crime synopsis (drugs sales and murder); sentence (28 years to life, parole eligible in September 2029); unusual incidents (inmate was stabbed six times, assailant never identified); programs satisfied. She tapped the keyboard.

"Future goals still the same?" she asked.

"Yes, yes," I muffled under my mask. I didn’t remember what she had down for my goals, but she acknowledged the professional me. I didn't care what was on that computer screen. I thanked her and left. I had to get back to my cell, get back to work.

In the world of New York's Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, I am inmate #04A0823. I'm housed in the Sullivan Correctional Facility, a small maximum security prison in the Catskills, about 100 miles north of New York City. In the real world, I am a contributing editor for Esquire, and I regularly write for The New York Times. I imagine the counselor knew this, that I'd published three articles in The New York Times since I had last seen her, but she didn't acknowledge me. Nor does the administration. It's a bizarre world, prison, and corrections employees seldom affirm or validate or even engage in any dialogue. Affirmation and validation only come from volunteers, from people coming in from the outside to help me and teach me over the years.

Read more about John J. Lennon and The Prison Project at Quinnipiac

When Quinnipiac Magazine editor Brian Koonz came to visit me recently at Sullivan, we sat two tables apart and chatted through masks. We ate bad microwaved burgers and talked about good writing, and Quinnipiac University's mission to bring more college classes into correctional facilities in Connecticut.

He came to ask me, face to face, to contribute a short piece to this issue. I had a deadline for the Times, another for Esquire, and owed my agent a revision on my book proposal. But if it weren't for educators who came into prison to teach me, I wouldn't have this career.

When I got locked up in 2002, I was 24, with a ninth grade education and zero character. I was convicted and sentenced and bussed upstate to prison. You don't necessarily serve all your time at one prison, especially if you're getting into trouble. In the beginning, I did drugs, gossiped in the yard, watched hours and hours of TV in the cell, got into fights, got stabbed. I felt like my life was going nowhere, and I meant nothing. It's what incapacitation feels like. It's one of the purposes of incarceration. Another is rehabilitation, but I never got the feeling that corrections much fostered it. It’s what we do in prison college programs. We try to reinvent ourselves.

The first time I thought I could be more than this thing — inmate, convict, murderer — was in Attica, the toughest joint in New York. It had a palpable tension that stemmed from the 1971 uprising, which left 43 dead. It was 2010. In the midst of the danger, I found a safe place in a creative writing workshop taught by Doran Larson, an English professor from Hamilton College. The school funded the class with a modest stipend. Doran commiserated with us, validated us. We couldn't get it anywhere else.

I remember how we all used to hang onto Doran's encouraging words. I focused on his criticism, the blood on the pages of my manuscripts. I knew I needed to soak it in to become a better writer and thinker. We read Best American Writing Collections and tried to develop our voices on the page.

In 2013, I published my first piece in The Atlantic. More than an accomplishment, I saw it as an opportunity to reinvent myself. I became the prison journalist.

It's what we do in prison college programs. We're try to reinvent ourselves. Education helps us think critically, spot opportunities and better see our place in the world. And now that prisoners can access Pell Grants, even more college classes will start to come into prisons. I’ll hear more guys say how they’re swamped with school work, or brag about an A, or hear them say how their professor told them how well they write, hanging onto their every word like I used to hang onto Doran’s.

It sometimes frustrates me that corrections sees me as more of a threat now than when I was a criminal breaking the rules. They understand the old me. They can contain the old me. The new me, the one who has knowledge and the ability to spin a yarn and place stories in major outlets, they can't contain him. They're not even intrigued or curious about him. It's bizarre. The writer, especially one who does journalism, is perhaps the most dangerous prisoner in America. If rehabilitation was the real goal, I imagine, someone may have an idea to see me as an asset instead of a liability.

And so, it seems our hope, our rehabilitation, our ability to become productive citizens is left to educators who are curious and intrigued and creative and compassionate. Don't leave it to corrections. They're failing. And it's not that they are bad people. It's just how we run prisons in America. They are total institutions. The people running them are part of a bureaucracy. They're just doing what's expected of them. But don't try to change the system. Just do the great work you know how to do as educators within these institutions. And remember, it's all about the work.

Photo by Christaan Felber

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