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Lyle May and the necessity of higher education in prison


In 1999, the state of North Carolina incarcerated Lyle May in Raleigh’s Central Prison, placing him on death row. North Carolina has not executed anyone since 2006, so while he probably won’t be subject to the form of state-sanctioned murder known as the death penalty (though as long as execution exists, his fate is uncertain), he will almost certainly never leave prison. In 2004, despite the criminal-legal system’s attempts to completely sever Lyle from society, he began correspondence courses with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Adams State University, and Ohio University. These courses allowed him to earn college credit, an associate’s degree, and progress toward a bachelor’s degree from a distance, and his education blossomed into public writings for his own blog and outlets like The Marshall Project and Scalawag. 

Lyle leverages his platform, education, and experience to draw attention to prison conditions and explore his own humanity as his time behind bars extends day by day. Yet, inexplicably, prison officials in North Carolina have started obstructing Lyle’s access to Ohio University’s classes—the warden of Central Prison, reflecting the ‘common sense’ view our society has of incarcerated people, told Lyle that “death row inmates are not in prison to be rehabilitated.” Despite Lyle’s diligent pursuit of his education, his access to it has always been tenuous, dependent on the whims of a system fundamentally hostile to the rights and dignity of incarcerated people.

Nonetheless, Lyle’s effort to increase access to higher education resources in prison is rooted in a deep lineage of incarcerated people asserting their right to public education and fair, humane treatment. 

For example: On September 9, 1971, following a series of peaceful protests over atrocious conditions at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, over 1200 incarcerated (mostly Puerto Rican and Black) men revolted and took over an entire wing of the prison

L.D. Barkley, one of the uprising’s leaders, declared, “The entire incident that has erupted here at Attica is … [a result] of the unmitigated oppression wrought by the racist administrative network of this prison throughout the year. We are men. We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.” 

The Attica Brothers demanded “realistic rehabilitation programs,” a healthy diet, and modernization of the inmate education system. Many of the men incarcerated at Attica were politically conscious, radicalized by movements for Black Power or groups like the Young Lords Party, and thus knew their education was a weapon to confront the broader injustices they faced—something New York’s prison officials knew, too. On September 13th, Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered the retaking of the prison, brutally murdering over 40 people and extinguishing the Attica Uprising. Nonetheless, Attica’s legacy persists, through organized actions like the 2018 National Prison Strike and the advocacy of those like Lyle, who remain subject to the brutality of jails and prisons. 

Despite numerous, vigorous efforts, education in prisons today remains piecemeal at best and non-existent at worst. For over 150 years, from the establishment of public schools by Reconstruction governments, to Brown v. Board, to Attica and today’s teachers’ strikes, millions of Americans have fought for access to public education and its crucial role in dismantling political, economic, and social injustice. One of the most urgent battlegrounds in the fight for public education today continues to take place in the “gray wastes” housing the condemned and (largely) forgotten—incarcerated people.

Access to education in prison has long been contentious and contingent. From 1972 to 1995, sparked by Attica and pushed for by incarcerated people, those not sentenced to death or life without parole could receive federal Pell Grants to enroll in any one of 350 postsecondary prison programs in 37 states. In 1994, the infamous Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (enthusiastically supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, including Joe Biden) ended the Pell Grant program for incarcerated people and made higher education in prison rare, absent support from private universities and colleges

Since 1994, programs like the Bard Prison Initiative (founded by undergraduates in 1999) and the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison (founded in 2003) emerged to fill the void created by the Crime Bill—which also meant that many incarcerated people were excluded, dependent on institutional support and resources. In 2015, the Obama Administration launched the Second Chance Pell Grant program to loosen up funding for prison education—surprisingly extended by the Trump administration—and there’s legislation pending in Congress to reverse the educational restrictions of the Crime Bill. The Second Chance program, while significant, is still incomplete, excluding those with drug convictions among numerous other eligibility restrictions. John J. Lennon, serving a sentence of 28 years to life in Sing Sing prison in upstate New York, recently described in The Atlantic the consequences of unequal access to education for incarcerated people, such access being essential for surviving in prison and successfully living outside of it.

Most arguments for prison education repeat the same statistics—these programs would reduce state correctional costs by hundreds of millions of dollars, reduce the chance of recidivism by 43 to 72 percent, increase the chance of employment and make conditions inside prisons safer. These factors are important, usually deployed to sway efficient-minded, traditionally “pragmatic”  policymakers. 

But often minimized, if not lost, in this conversation is the moral argument for educational justice—incarcerated people are, like the rest of us, entitled to free public education. 

Those who end up in jail or prison do not forfeit their humanity when they’re locked behind bars. And a movement for access to higher education in prison can be an important tool in reducing the power and reach of the criminal-legal system as we move toward its abolition. Education alone cannot rectify social and economic inequality, but we know it can reduce the likelihood that people return to prison. In explaining his choice to pursue college courses, Lyle reminds us, “There needed to be something more than the poison of prison air—that lethal combination of hatred, bitterness, and ignorance that rots mind, body, and soul.” The question of prison education, part and parcel of a much larger campaign to invest in communities and ultimately eliminate prisons, offers us a choice: whether we act in solidarity with those targeted by a racist, classist, misogynist, ableist, homophobic, and transphobic institution, or remain silent and co-sign on its violence.  

There’s another question, pertinent to us, raised by the debate over prison education—what might it mean for us to demand Duke expand its academic resources to people in prison? Prison higher education programs are relatively sparse in the South (though the University of North Carolina system and Duke Divinity School’s Project TURN, among others, have prioritized implementing their own smaller-scale programs) and Duke taking the step to invest in prison education could be a model for the region and a boost to existing efforts. Resources are increasingly available, too, whether from Duke or philanthropic organizations like the Mellon Foundation

If Duke were to also provide a pathway from incarceration to (financially-supported) enrollment in degree programs post-release, it would not only expand educational access further, but radically challenge who we consider to be a student and who belongs at Duke—chipping away at the elitism and exclusion characterizing our traditional student body. Finally, a prison education program would necessarily involve partnerships between Duke and community organizations which center the needs of justice-involved people, ensuring accountability through mechanisms of shared responsibility and power. 

In making a similar case for prison education programs in the New York Times, scholar Elizabeth Hinton asked, “Will colleges begin to address and reflect the world around them?” Higher education isn’t a silver bullet—and my trust in this University is tepid, at best—but Hinton’s words ring true. Duke’s resources have some role to play in eradicating the violence produced and reproduced by our existing criminal punishment system.

In the meantime, we must take seriously the concerns and demands of incarcerated people like Lyle May, John J. Lennon, and so many others. In Lyle’s case, continue to follow Scalawag for updates on his situation and ways we can take action from the outside on his behalf. On campus, let’s more seriously investigate Duke’s relationship to the criminal-legal system and the beast that is the prison-industrial complex—and force the University to not only better reflect our world, but invest in upending it. 

Gino Nuzzolillo is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Looking for something you can do right now? Consider making a donation to the volunteer-run North Carolina Women’s Prison Book Project, or helping them purchase books directly from the Regulator Bookshop.


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