Prison College Dropout

At the time, it didn’t feel like the right move. In the end, I think it was. In reality, it was out of my hands.

Into my second month here I enrolled in classes through the education department. My family and the coordinator helped chase down high school and college transcripts. Paperwork and enrollment applications had to be submitted prior to deadlines, and as is the case with most things in the BOP, there wasn’t any flex in the schedule for inmates.

I was going to obtain a Certificate in Horticulture. It sounded entertaining enough, would deepen my appreciation of nature, and was going to be intellectually stimulating. I wouldn’t be here long enough to earn a full associates degree, but the certificate was something to aim for. My work detail is in the horticulture department and I’ve always enjoyed growing vegetables, planting flowers, tending to the lawn or getting my sprinkler system exceptionally dialed in. The latter being one of the more obscure skills home ownership has bestowed upon me.

At a certain point in the process I came to question myself, wondering if this was the best use of my time. On one end, the classes would help the days move along and they would be engaging. On the flip side, what was the opportunity cost? What was I giving up to ‘stay busy’?

After registering for my first class I came to discover that the college which works with the prison wants inmates to finish their degree or certificate. From a reporting standpoint, taking classes yet not having a long enough sentence to finish the programming is a check in the ‘bad’ column. This is understandable, but on a 42 month sentence the class load became fairly stacked. I value my free time, here or anywhere, and these classes were going to cut into reading, writing and rec. Then I became informed that I was automatically enrolled into introductory business classes, something I felt wasn’t the best use of my time.

One of the classes was business communication. For the right student, there are phenomenal lessons to be learned and this is exactly the type of programming that can help contribute to one’s success upon their release. For me, I didn’t feel I was going to drastically benefit from a class that in part highlights the wisdom of not fist bumping during a job interview or using acronyms like lol, brb and wtf in professional emails. I approached the situation with humility, but also with the idea mentioned above – using my time wisely and not attempting to stay busy merely to disregard reality.

Come to find out, if I didn’t want to take the business classes I wasn’t allowed to take Horticulture classes. This was discouraging news and after contemplating the fork in the road I opted out of college. This did not go over well with the education depart who so eloquently let me know that I was dropping out of college no less than one week after I registered. Needless to say, they were neither pleased or impressed. This really put the onus on me to make sure I was using my time productively and in a way, not taking classes motivated me.

I hemmed and hawed for a bit, wondering if I shouldn’t have bailed. Did I act too quickly, maybe irrationally? Part of me minor panicked, still new to the rigidity and structure of incarceration and how we have to be in certain places at specific times throughout the day, every single day, and I didn’t want to add more to the list.

The ironic part came two weeks later and the Stoics secretly showed up with a lesson in how often the things we fret over are out of our control. Due to Covid the prison was split into two groups of inmates. We were separated at all times so if one unit had a Covid outbreak, the other could continue on with whatever semblance of a normal life we can have here. In lieu of this, that semester the other unit was slated for the introductory horticulture class. I wouldn’t have been able to take it anyway. Not taking that course would have disqualified me from all other college classes because my sentence wasn’t long enough to finish a degree or certificate. It gets more ironic as several months later I’m back in the education department anyways, teaching a class on resume writing.

This speaks to all the unknowns in the future. In that moment, I felt guilt and remorse for dropping out. On one hand, I wanted to learn more and take advantage of the opportunities afforded to us. On the other, I wanted to study what I felt like pursuing and follow that road where it went – which has been a deeper appreciation of history, writing, music, fiction, and social justice issues.

I bailed on college but it was going to bail on me anyways. I think about what else I might be wasting emotions on. What else we fear we are losing when we might be gaining, or the whole thing was out of our hands either way.

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