'When You Learn, You Don’t Return’: How Education in Prison Reduces Recidivism



The Progressive Magazine: Christopher Blackwell, Nick Hacheney | April 11, 2022


It was in the ninth grade when I, Chris, decided to call it quits. I felt dumb in class never seemed to be able to follow what the teacher was saying. To cover up how behind I was, I’d crack jokes, usually at the teacher’s expense. This would usually wind me up in the principal’s office on my way to another suspension. One day, I got tired of the theatrics and left. It wasn’t long before the juvenile detention center was my second home; and soon after that, the penitentiary.


When I was sentenced to forty-five years in prison for taking another person’s life, I never thought I’d earn a college degree or be successful in any way. I thought all I would ever be is a prisoner whom no one cared about.


I couldn’t have been more wrong.


After a decade in prison, I was introduced to a program that let incarcerated people take college classes for credit. At first, I was too intimidated to join. “What was different?” I thought. “I couldn’t get through school when I was younger, so how could I possibly make it through a college class?”


But one of my friends in the program, Noel, refused to let me sit on the sideline. “What do you have to lose?” he asked. He vowed to stick it out with me and kept that promise.


Early on, I struggled with math. As an adult, my math skills were comparable to that of a fifth grader. I often felt like our teacher was speaking in an ancient language that no one knew anymore. Most of the time, I’d go right from class to the college office where Noel was a teacher’s assistant and give him the look that said, “We need to talk. You got me into this.”


He’d patiently explain everything, countless times. By the end of my final math class, I received an A for solving a quadratic equation for my final project. What I really learned, though, was that I was capable of achieving things I never thought were possible and that I was a lot smarter than I had ever given myself credit for. All I needed to do was apply myself.


In 2017, I received my associate’s degree. Today, I’m a few credits away from my bachelor’s. And if that wasn’t enough to build my confidence, I’m now a journalist whose work has been published in more than fifty national publications, including The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Jewish Currents, and The Progressive.


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