An education worth fighting for

bridgingthegapA biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.



Within these prison walls a job is not called a job; it’s called a work assignment. An inmate is not called by his name; he is called an offender. And an education is not cheap.

Many aspects in correctional institutions are called unfamiliar names, bringing them to a depersonalized level (which may be for security reasons, preventative measures, etc.) Nonetheless, I do believe that it is reasonable to expect that we be treated with respect, professionalism and fairness. We are still human; I believe we deserve this at the least.

That’s not to say we expect a handout or relate to this place as owing us anything. In reality we owe them, for society. Bettering ourselves is a step in that direction to be in the position to benefit society upon release.

December 15, 2015 I was terminated from my “work assignment” as the facility butcher for the disposal of bad meat products without first notifying staff.  Having been in the position for over a year and a half with no discipline infractions, I was always instructed to handle bad food products in that manner.

After exhausting the appeal process, and despite the recent memo from the assistant commissioner stating a progressive discipline process to be implemented immediately, I met a brick wall. Every lieutenant to food supervisor to assistant warden remained disconnected from the matter.

The entire time I’d been here, I strived to do the right thing. How could this happen to me?

Despite the fact that this was merely a prison work assignment, this termination may potentially have detrimental effects to not only my current means of self-improvement through education, but also transitioning within the facility to minimum custody. I began to ask myself, “Is this going to ruin what I’ve been working so hard toward the last 4½ years?” Was this small mistake going to have a major effect on my goals of betting myself?

Working in the kitchen seven days a week 10 to 12 hour workdays at $.25 an hour, after 10 months I had saved up enough money to pay for my first college correspondence course. Independently funding my education has been one of the most exhausting, yet rewarding things I’ve ever done. In upwards of 1,600 hours I worked to afford an Introduction to Psychology course, and I don’t regret it one bit.

But now I am jobless and in jeopardy of losing my chance to transition to minimum custody because of a minor miscommunication. I can no longer pay for my own education. From the outside looking in, some may see termination from a prison work assignment as no big deal. Yet to some, this means a lot more than that.

My hope is that someone will read this and get a glimpse of the struggles we experience to become better people from within these walls. It is no less real than these faced by individuals out there, and decisions are made that can stunt growth toward bettering ourselves.

Education has completely changed my heart and mind toward the world. If it can do this for me, it can do it for others. The struggle has not stopped since day one in obtaining an education while incarcerated, yet it’s this struggle that makes it more rewarding in the end. That’s what makes it an education worth fighting for.


Alexander Robert Denning is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to To learn more about the organization’s work, visit