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How Kentucky’s Lack of Prison Education Programs Leads to Despair

At Kentucky’s Northpoint Training Center, incarcerated people are not allowed to participate in programs until they’re at least four years away from their parole board date—robbing people of years of educational opportunities.

This photo shows a close-up of the badge on a Kentucky Department of Corrections K9 officer.
Kentucky Department of Corrections / YouTube

The most striking weapon mass incarceration has in its arsenal against the people who enter America’s prison systems is the illusion of hopelessness it instills. By their very nature, arrests, courts, convictions, and incarceration disparage and dehumanize us until we are stripped of our rights and dignity—and reduced to inmate status.

I have been incarcerated for nearly 19 years. I am labeled a sex offender. And I have experienced imprisonment’s despair from the lowest vantage point: as a pariah and outcast. I entered prison with a 25-year sentence—and as a broken man who lacked the words to express the resignation I felt.

The first thing I noticed as an incarcerated person was the lack of purpose. We had rules, but prison was otherwise without structure or responsibilities. I soon learned that structure and responsibilities were privileges only bestowed upon the lucky few who could participate in programs.

I’ve called Kentucky’s Northpoint Training Center my home for nearly two decades. The facility does not allow inmates to participate in programs until they are at least four years from their parole board date. As a person serving 25 years, this has meant that I had to serve 16 long years before I could even be considered for a program that gave me purpose, taught me new skills, or otherwise expanded my worldview beyond the bars. I could not change my sentence. 

With no options for self-improvement or education, prison became a warehouse of hopelessness and despair.

I’ve often heard my fellow inmates say that prison only made them better criminals. I can see why. With nothing but time on their hands, they continued the same errant ways that initially led them to incarceration. Hustlers preyed on weak-minded corrections officers to smuggle in dope, cell phones, and other forms of contraband. Thieves stole. Bullies bullied. Victims got victimized. No one cared about their futures when the system overseeing them didn’t, either.

Outside the fence, my children grew older, my father died, and my mother found herself riddled with cancer. Life went on without me. Prison offered no closure, guidance, consolation, or alternative ways of being. All I had was myself. I had plenty of time—but nothing to do with it.

I watched people die. Men dropped where they stood, their arms and legs cuffed and shackled, even as they were wheeled off to the morgue. They would be prisoners in the afterlife, too. No funerals were held in prison. Grieving was another privilege we were not allowed.

A few years into my imprisonment, I found myself with an unquenchable desire to do something—anything—besides merely serving my time. Day by agonizing day. Monotonous minute by meandering moment. I needed to find something to do with my time, so I looked into the prison’s programs and tried to figure out why I couldn’t sign up for any.

Per Kentucky Department of Corrections policy 18.1, the reclassification committee reviews each of us twice yearly to assess our custody level and our housing, program, and work assignments. In addition to a bi-annual review, our assigned Classification and Treatment Officer (CTO) may make program assignment recommendations outside of the reclassification committee. 

The system is ridiculous in practice. I was court-ordered to take the sex offender treatment program (SOTP), but I couldn’t sign up for the program until I served a minimum of 16 years in prison.

Since I couldn’t sign up for SOTP or participate in any other programs, I’ve used many years of my imprisonment to teach myself how to write and communicate better, in part so that I could highlight the injustices of imprisonment. I’ve picked up whatever snippets and tidbits of knowledge I could find. I searched for words and descriptions that could give meaning to my prison existence. After an infamous prison riot at Northpoint Training Center in 2009, I volunteered for a playwright’s workshop taught by local volunteers. The workshop offered zero educational good time credit and thus did not count as an institutional program. Still, the workshop taught me how to write dialogue and develop characters and plot structures. I now had the words and a device to frame my own experiences. 

In time, I was introduced to PEN America and the organization’s Prison Writing Awards mentor programs. Through my exposure to outside influences, I discovered magazines, newsletters, and organizations like Prison Writers and Underground Writing that catered to the incarcerated and correspondence courses like College Guild and Level that offered access to free educational programs. All of this fundamentally changed the trajectory of my time in prison and how I viewed the potential for my future. Prison may have denied me the opportunity to enroll in programs, but it freed me to seek out my rehabilitation.

Currently, the only notable programs that exist at the Northpoint Training Center are those focused on moral recognition training, anger management, parenting, untangling relationships, trauma, thinking for good, the substance abuse program Staying Quit, SOTP, a life skills program called PORTAL New Direction, and an employment program added for the general population in January of this year. 

With over 1,200 people vying for so few programs—and even few instructors to facilitate them—it’s clear why there are such stringent program entrance guidelines and criteria. There aren’t enough programs and instructors to go around, and there’s even less funding for rehabilitative programs as the prison population grows. This is all by design, of course. 

For people like me who want to seek out educational growth wherever it can be found, correspondence courses exist. However, these programs often aren’t openly advertised. It isn’t in the prison’s best interest to shatter the illusion of hopelessness and despair that it fights so hard to maintain. As we are often told: Prison is a punishment, not a privilege. 

Incarceration’s illusion of powerlessness has stolen nineteen years of my life. And yet, I still consider myself one of the lucky ones. I’m not dead. In prison, I’ve learned how to write plays. I’ve participated in correspondence courses. I’ve written stories that helped me make sense of the time I’ve spent away from the larger world. No one else may ever read this work, but it means something to me. 

Too few people in my shoes are fortunate enough to do what I’ve done.