Metamorphosis of the Mind
By Shon Pernice, Navy, National Guard
Writing Type: Prose
By Shon Pernice
"Education has for its object the formation of character" -- Herbert Spencer
The American prison system is filled with many dark voids. When you have failed in society, how do you rebuild your sense of self-worth?
A day in prison is so rigidly controlled, structured, and dictated that prisoners lose the ability to make decisions for themselves. A prisoner does what he or she is told (if they know what is good for them), which is not conducive to the development of strong critical thinking skills. When a prisoner's existence is restricted by external forces, he or she may eventually fall victim to incarceration's degenerating influences.
Prison deprives an individual of freedom, but an education can help tear down the constraints of the mind and awaken the drive to work toward short-term and lifelong goals. The Correctional Education Program, through Ashland University, has provided me with a solid foundation as well as the resolve to avoid detrimental activities while incarcerated. It is a gateway to creating a sense of purpose and meaning. Moreover, it has transformed my views of the world around me. Higher education imparts the ability to analyze, reason, and think for yourself in any situation. As a powerful liberating tool, it can never be taken away. Knowledge can only be surrendered by your choice not to utilize those skills.
When you arrive in a correctional institution, time stops. There is limited contact with the outside world, and any meaningful relationships are distanced. Criminal behavior becomes a means for survival, and the brain starts to lose its need for higher forms of thinking. By not being fully alive in the present, a prisoner stays more firmly imprisoned in the past.
The scarlet letter “F” for felon is going to be a permanent part of my identity. In addition, many other constraints in society, such as housing, employment and opportunity, will be adversely affected by this new label upon release. Without any positive influences that can bring knowledge and hope to the prisoner, a cycle of distorted thinking will contribute to a destructive lifestyle.
I had tried for several years to get into a college program while incarcerated. The correspondence courses were expensive, and navigating the prison bureaucracy on my own seemed more trouble that what it was worth. I can only have up to five books on my property list at a time, and the mailroom procedures seem to change yearly.
I am a disabled veteran with G.I. Bill eligibility. However, finding an accredited college that was VA approved was another encumbrance. I had almost given up hope until I saw the college leaflets that were posted around the prison in the fall of 2019. Ashland University's Correctional Education Program gave me a renewed sense of encouragement and a path to reclaim my self-worth. My perspective about the future, and myself, began to change. I learned that I had something significant to work toward and a future that had potential value.
My values, norms and thinking were soon to be challenged during the spring semester of 2020. I had my own unique view of how the world functioned, and I quickly learned that education is the enemy of bigotry, racism and stereotypes. My ethnocentric feelings towards other faiths were stereotypical and negative. The World Religion course provided me with a balanced understanding of the unique differences in the global community. My dislike for any religion or denomination other than my own was solely based on fear and ignorance. The lack of understanding of other cultures and their values has caused me to regret some of my past attitudes. I found myself occupied with retrospective thoughts as I started to accept my intellectual poverty.
I would never had thought about the theater or a Broadway show. That was for rich people. However, I fell in love with human action before my eyes. Through the Theater class, I was able to view A Raisin in the Sun, Rent and Oklahoma. My thoughts of the Tony Awards before this class were that it was for want-to-be actors. Now, I find myself clapping to a scene from the 2011 Tony Awards for the musical Anything Goes starring Sutton Foster. The more I studied, the more I appreciated something I most likely would never been exposed to. Imagination and the arts are absolutely critical to the quality of our lives. I may not be able to afford a Broadway show, but an Off Broadway or regional play is now on my bucket list.
I thought that jazz was just a type of music that Kenny G played or some shady nightclub lounge singer crooned. I then discovered, in my Music course, that jazz is a part of our American heritage. It originated right here in the United States. The different styles, tempos, instruments and regional origins made me wonder how I missed this treasure. The next thing I knew, I was purchasing songs by Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and the Glenn Miller Orchestra. I am now elated to be able to discuss the various types of saxophones and how they differ. My life before prison was too close-minded and sheltered to be able to appreciate a form of music that I was oblivious to. While I was surrounded by drugs, gangs and violence, jazz became a soothing island in the sea of misery that I face every day.
From my prison cell, I visited Machu Picchu in Peru. Through the poetry of Pablo Neruda in my Latin American Literature course, I was exposed to the domination of indigenous people by the conquistadors and discovered that they were not friendly explorers. The institution of slavery is a horrible chapter of our nation's past. And that was all that I knew about it. Former slave and writer Frederick Douglass offered me first-hand accounts in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. A literary piece that I previously would have never picked up showed me a race of people who were done a terrible injustice. It was a horrible event that must never be forgotten or repeated.
Moreover, Aristotelian Ethics has me reevaluating my own morals and virtues. Philosophy encouraged me to conduct an autopsy of my moral compass and reexamine the values that I hold. My craving for connection soon reemerged as motivation to become a contributing member of a larger social culture as I grow intellectually and emotionally.
The Prison Education Program has allowed me to break free from the prison routine that hinders growth. By not being fully alive in the present, I was kept more firmly imprisoned in my past beliefs. Furthermore, by embracing an educational opportunity over criminal activities inside of prison, I am choosing to overcome some of the common barriers that can obstruct reintegration.
I will graduate with my bachelor’s degree in the spring of 2023. By being able to identify with a new social group as a college graduate, I have a renewed sense of hope as a motivating factor for me to succeed. Doors of my past have closed, but new ones will open. The scarlet letter that I now bear is a reminder of my situation and of how I turned my predicament into a human achievement.