Book Excerpt from Chapter 4 of Unlocking Potential: Organizing a School Inside a Prison. This excerpt offers readers a glimpse at the importance of “reaching, teaching, and engaging” students at all times. In this excerpt I attempt to help Jerline talk through and gain insight into his circumstances and come to some understanding of living and growing up in prison.
By Hilderbrand Pelzer III Author of Unlocking Potential
Despite facing murder charges, 17-year-old Jerline proved, in prison, to be an outstanding, conscientious student. He was the living representation of Winston Churchill’s famous statement, “I am always willing to learn, however I do not always like to be taught.” During his trial, Jerline began to pull away from the relationship he had developed with the school and his teachers. All the adults and students around him noticed changes in his attitude, behavior, and school performance; but, no one attempted any direct intervention. His favorite teacher came to me with the information that Jerline was acting in unusual ways, misbehaving, disrupting classes, and refusing to do his school assignments. When I asked the teacher if he or anyone else had spoken with Jerline to ascertain the cause of his difficulties, he replied that no one had.
I sat down with Jerline to learn what was troubling him. What was causing him to pull away from the success he had been achieving in school? Jerline said abruptly, “I don’t care anymore.” I asked him what it was he didn’t care about. He turned to me and shouted, “I don’t care about school; it can’t help me anymore.”
Unbeknown to me, Jerline had recently been informed by his lawyer that he was facing twenty to forty-years in prison for his crime. I listened to Jerline speak, erratically, about the impact that twenty to forty years behind bars would have on his life, I realized that his irrational behavior was coming from his struggle to make sense of his destiny. Jerline was, for perhaps the first time in his life, finding that he cared deeply about all the things that would have been part of his life if it were not for his poor decision to commit a violent crime. He talked about family, fatherhood, marriage, working for a living, homeownership, and growing old. For Jerline, at that moment, his entire future was out of reach and unattainable.
Our conversation continued over the next several days. It was very important, to me, that Jerline have the opportunity to talk through and gain insight into his circumstances and come to some understanding of living and growing up in prison. In instances like this, many juvenile inmates attempt to jump mentally to the end of the prison sentence, as if it were just around the corner. In actuality, their path to the end of a prison sentence is usually a decades-long journey.
Jerline used these conversations to face up to the errors he had made and to try to grasp the fact that he would serve up to forty years of his life in prison. He knew he could not escape the punishment waiting for him. I tried my best to encourage him to continue his education as he grew to adulthood in prison. He embraced my message to continue his schooling, learn to be resourceful, and try to avoid the many pitfalls of prison life. Eventually, Jerline received a sentence of seventeen to thirty-four years. His final words to me, before being transferred from the Philadelphia Prison System to a state correctional institution, were, “Thank you, I will be fine.”
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