“I, like everyone else, have the prerogative to define my ‘I am.'”
Last April, we posted a letter from Andre Pierce, an incarcerated student enrolled at the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education (CPE). The responses to that post were overwhelmingly positive, but there were some comments that questioned Andre calling himself a Wesleyan student. Last year’s CPE fellow printed all of those comments and brought them to Andre in prison. Here is his response to them:
My name is Andre Pierce, and I am an African-American prisoner at Cheshire Correctional Institution. I’ve been enrolled in the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education (CPE) for five years. The CPE offers credit-bearing courses, taught by Wesleyan professors, inside prison walls. The CPE’s student population has expanded from 18 to 36 incarcerated students over the past five years. CPE has been rewarding to me not merely in an academic sense, but also in a personal sense. It has and continues to expand my worldview. It sharpens my critical thinking skills like a blade. It improves my communication skills to the level where I can seriously engage with Wesleyan professors about their academic interests. The CPE has been so life altering for me that I felt the need to share this experience with you, the Wesleyan student body, in the spring of 2013, in an essay titled Wesleyan Aids a Prisoner in Rehabilitation that was published on Wesleying.
I was deeply moved by the variety of responses. To know that you see me as one of your peers means a great deal. Your support tells me that you believe in the transformative power of higher education, not only for the free and privileged but also for the incarcerated and less than privileged. More importantly, your support tells me that my criminal history hasn’t blinded you to my humanity. However, I must admit that I was a bit troubled by a few comments that challenged my prerogative to define myself as a Wesleyan student, including: “Lol just because Wesleyan students started a program for this guy to take classes in prison does not make him a Wesleyan student.” There were similar comments that snickered at the idea that I could possibly consider myself a Wesleyan student.
Truth be told, I interpreted these derisive comments to be part of a general undercurrent of racism and bigotry that exists on campus. I felt embittered by the idea of an elitist and intolerant attitude pervading the student body, presuming that only a privileged class, removed from the cycle of systemic violence and incarceration, deserves a Wesleyan education.
However, my assumption was challenged by a writing tutor who currently volunteers with the CPE. According to her, an overwhelming majority of the Wesleyan student-body supports the idea of providing prisoners with a Wesleyan education. She reminded me that the discouraging comments were posted by a few individuals, and she implied that they didn’t merit a response. But I’m not one to shy away from a debate. I couldn’t resist the urge to take those naysayers to task and invite you, my student peers, to join the conversation.
I, like everyone else, have the prerogative to define my “I am.” I determine who I am by what I do and who I identify with. I identify with a son who I care deeply for; thus, I am a caring father. I identify with life experiences that have afforded me unique insight and wisdom; thus, I am a student of life. I identify with a Wesleyan education that continues to improve me in countless ways; thus, I am indeed a Wesleyan student. Yes, I have a criminal history, one that will likely limit my options in the future. However, I have renounced that lifestyle and I now consider myself a criminal reformist instead of a criminal conformist. In other words, as a re-formed prisoner, I no longer conform to criminal values. Just as I retain this right to define my “I am,” every other individual should also embrace this right to self-determination.
I am not asking that my criminal history be ignored. However, I am asking that the extent of my self-transformation be given due consideration. I am asking that educational resources, which have a proven effect on transforming the lives of prisoners, be more equitably distributed. A college education reduces recidivism by over 50%. What must be understood is that I am not the only one that stands to benefit from this education. Indeed, society benefits because a transformed prisoner translates into a safer community.
Furthermore, Wesleyan University’s namesake, John Wesley, believed that the most despised and rejected can be transformed. He demonstrated this optimistic view of a redeemable human nature by bringing his Christian ministries into prisons. John Wesley looked at those dark pockets in society and saw hope. He saw a wilted people who could be revived through the light of education.
Let us not merely adopt John Wesley’s appellation, but adopt his principles. Let the advantaged among us seek out those spaces where human nature has appeared to have deteriorated and ask ‘how can I be of service?’
Prison is not my final chapter. I am still writing my autobiography and my great works lay before me. I believe it would be a disservice to society to write off me and my peers, as though we have reached the end of our life stories. I see myself accomplishing great things in life, like serving as a positive father figure for my son, becoming an accomplished writer, and working as a motivational speaker and social activist. These are the great deeds that I hope will fill the pages of my autobiography. I proudly boast that I see the same hopes, expectations, and triumphs among my fellow students in CPE. With the help of a higher education, they, like me, can also tell their stories with a common theme: one of redemption.
If interested in working with the CPE or learning more information, contact Zach Fischman ’13 (the current CPE Fellow) at zfischman[at]wesleyan[dot]edu.