Taking College Classes in Prison Helped Me Forget I Wasn't Free
Illustration by Julia Kuo


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Life Inside

Taking College Classes in Prison Helped Me Forget I Wasn't Free

It’s sad, but I knew I would go to prison before I would go to college.

This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.

"Raised in the System," the premiere of season six of VICE on HBO, focuses exclusively on juvenile justice in America. It airs Friday, April 6, at 7:30 and 11 PM EST.

“Name your favorite book, and tell the class what you like about writing,” our professor said on the first day, asking each of us to introduce ourselves.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” I replied. “And I like writing because I can paint a picture of equality and justice with my words.”


We sat at tables clustered in the middle of the library, which served as our makeshift college classroom. Our professor stood at the front of the room near the chalkboard, where he’d write up his lectures. Off to the side there was a set of computers that never seemed to work properly, and an officer’s desk. We’d read books and taken non-accredited classes in the library before. But when the Obama administration gave some inmates access to Pell grants in 2015, the University of Baltimore brought college to prison.

We took a writing placement test the first day. I remember sitting in the class trying to think of a subject to write about. I write best when I am passionate, so I chose to write about my son, and how happy he was when I told him I was in college now. He was 8 months old when I first went away in September 2004. He’s 14 now. Even though I was locked up, taking college classes helped me forget that I wasn’t free. I could forget about the guards that picked on us when they were agitated. I could forget about having to go back to my cell for a lock in. Class was a safe space, and I was a college student.

At first, everyone came to class from two or three different buildings across Jessup Correctional Institution. Sometimes we would have trouble getting there on time because officers would drag their feet counting all the inmates. We’d tell them we were taking classes for credit and needed the hours to earn our degrees, but they didn’t care.


Eventually we wound up asking if all of the 30 students in the program could live near each other in the same building. Some guys were hesitant at first. They were comfortable where they were, having been in the same cell on the same tier for five or six years. But I wanted to move, and I was vocal about it. I thought it would be good for us. We could have our own tier, away from the stabbings and negative influences. We could put a small library in the day room. We could create a campus.

When we finally got our own space, it was horrible. The cells were so dirty. But we all chipped in and cleaned everything up. We called our new unit a “compus,” a mashup of compound and campus. We tried to get a dedicated room to have our classes, so we wouldn’t have to meet in the library, which was open to all prisoners, but prison politics never let it happen.

Still, we would study together in our day room. We even created a game show to help us prepare for exams. It was like Jeopardy mixed with Family Feud. We would break into groups, and if we were having a history exam, we would take the questions from our study guide and make them into categories. For example, “Civil War” for 100, 200, 300 and so on. Each of us would chip in to make a prize for the winners. We’d go to commissary and buy cookies or chips and put it in a bag. It probably added up to $20, and the winning group split the bag.

When I was younger, I didn’t always enjoy learning. It’s sad, but I knew I would go to prison before I would go to college. Growing up in East Baltimore, I didn’t know any positive black men that were doing anything legal. I don't remember having teachers as interested in me as my professors are now. I got involved in selling and using drugs as a teenager, and I dropped out of high school in the 9th grade. I was in and out of jail since I was 13.


Eventually, I went away on multiple charges, including attempted murder. I got my GED in prison, and took some non-accredited classes, but it was college that really expanded me. I had never learned about China or different political philosophies or ideologies. Taking classes exposed me to new ideas. It made me realize I didn’t have to be a product of my environment. My favorite—but most difficult—class was Understanding Community. It was all about community organizing. We learned about bottom-up versus top-down, and how to get the community and government involved. I loved it, and realized I was kind of already doing it while I was inside. We had an informal community there, and I was a leader.

After I was released in December, after spending 13 years in prison, I started taking two classes at the University of Baltimore campus: Human Ecology and Business Ethics. I had taken eight classes while at Jessup, making me nearly a sophomore. Now I’m pursuing a degree in Nonprofit Management.

At first, I felt like a fish out of water. The hardest thing has been socializing with other students. Prison can dehumanize you—it can make you feel insufficient, like you don't know how to interact with people. I’ve been working with my reentry coordinator, who was hired by the Second Chance Program to help me get adjusted to life after prison. She’s a great resource, and is helping me find work, showing me how to get on the computer and fill out assignments. In prison, they didn't teach us about technology.


I think a few professors know that I am the first student from the Second Chance program to attend classes on campus; the rest of my former peers are still serving time. I am assuming a few students know it, too. No one has said anything bad, but I get some looks. Maybe it s because of the way I dress: Most students dress professionally, but I haven’t been able to wear what I want for so long that I like to be more casual and wear designer shirts and fitted caps.

Inside, our classes had more of a community feel. We all knew each other. We helped each other. There was a lot of unity. But on a regular campus, it's every man for himself. At first I would just come to class and sit quietly in the front row, taking notes. The more I get comfortable, though, the more I remember that I belong here. Of course, I was given a second chance, but in a sense I have also earned my second chance.

Recently, I was asked to speak at a private high school in Washington, D.C., to share my experience and talk about why we need more educational opportunities for people in prison. I came up with an analogy: In the first “Spiderman” movie, Peter Parker wasn’t ready to be Spiderman. He didn’t want to use his powers for good. He chose not to stop a robbery, and later, the same robber shot his uncle in a carjacking.

We have the power to rehabilitate and educate. Education is empowering. But the system is like Spiderman right now. They have the power, but they don’t want to use it. Then they get upset when some guy who was locked up comes back into their community and shoots their uncle.

There’s only so much punishment can do. It’s time for us to focus on rehabilitation.

Marcus Lilly, 35, is a student at the University of Baltimore. Learn more about the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program here.