From Prison Cells to PhD

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I had some credits I needed to spend on Audible, so I was browsing the memoir new releases. That’s when I found Stanley Andrisse’s From Prison Cells to PhD. As interesting as it looked from the description, I still not prepared for how much I absolutely LOVED this book. This is an absolute must read if you enjoyed Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.

From Prison Cells to PhD by Stanley Andrisse
From Prison Cells to PhD by Stanley Andrisse

Stanley writes about his experience as a drug distributer and how that life landed him in prison. When he was young, Stanley’s father always told him, “It’s never too late to do good.” Although Stanley didn’t fully comprehend his father’s words, they would guide him throughout his life.

Stanley started selling drugs as a way to get money. He discovered that he could make good money quickly by selling drugs. As he built connections, he managed people and moved significant amounts of drugs in the midwest. He was convicted of two drug offenses before he decided to get out of the business.

When Stanley visited a friend, they got into his car and were promptly pulled over by police. The police found his friend’s bong. Because of a “three strikes” lifelong criminal law, Stanley was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. After he got out of prison, he earned a PhD and became a diabetes researcher for Johns Hopkins University.

Inside the Prison Experience

Prison traumatized many people convicted of felonies. Stanley faced harassment, violence, and death threats while in prison. He saw more than one person killed and struggled to sleep during his years in prison.

He was held in solitary confinement for a month, charged with “inciting a riot.” When he was before a board to determine if he would get up to eleven more months of solitary confinement, the man questioning him quickly realized how unfair the charges were. Stanley’s “crime?” He copied four pages to a sheet when printing things off in the prison library. He spent a month in solitary confinement for breaking an arbitrary rule about photocopies in the prison library.

Difficulties of Post-Prison Life

After prison, Stanley watched many friends return to a life of crime because it was hard for a felon to find honest work. As he searched for jobs, Stanley was turned away because no one wanted to hire a convicted felon.

The post-prison struggles weren’t limited to work, though. Stanley struggled with dating. If he told a woman too soon about his convictions, he never got the chance to build a connection before they left. If he told them too late, he was perceived as dishonest.

When Stanley finished his PhD, he appreciated the application process for becoming a researcher. These positions didn’t require a form where he’d have to check a box indicating that he’s a felon. They just wanted information about his qualifications. Only after he had a job offer did the HR department look into his history. Even with his prior conviction, he was hired as a researcher for Johns Hopkins University.

Education to Prevent Recidivism

Although outsiders are inclined to think Stanley’s story of success after prison is exceptional, he writes that he doesn’t want people to think he’s an exception to the rule. He founded P2P, a nonprofit that helps convicted individuals get education and employment after prison.

Stanley’s work focuses on the idea that education is the best way to prevent recidivism. Instead of continuing the punish people after they’ve served their sentences, colleges should help equip them for a life outside of crime.

Studies show that colleges that allow felons as students are no less safe than those that don’t. In fact, most violent crime on college campuses is perpetrated by individuals without criminal records. Universities should not deny a person’s application based on prior convictions.

Review Breakdown

Writing – This memoir was beautifully written. The style was easy to follow and Stanley presents his history and advocacy in a clear way.

Story – Stanley’s memoir was compelling from start to finish. I listened to this book over the course of three days, although I wanted to listen to it all in one sitting. He shares his life story in a fairly linear way, helping readers to see all the things that factored into his decisions.

Mature Content – There is language and violence throughout the book. Stanley also details years of work as a drug distributer. Although he handles topics suited for mature audiences, he does so in a way that isn’t overly graphic.

Likability of Author – Stanley was very likeable. He was remorseful about the crimes he committed and some of the less likeable things in his past. Although he balks at the idea of being called inspirational, I found him to be just that.

BONUS Audiobook Review – I always love listening to memoirs narrated by the author, and this was no different. It was great hearing his inflection and how he described events. I highly recommend this audiobook if you’re looking for a way to spend your Audible credits.

Quick Review

In his book From Prison Cells to PhD, Stanley Andrisse reflects on his crime, conviction, and post-prison life. He writes about all of the factors that led to his ten-year prison sentence and thoughtfully reflects on the ways the system leads to recidivism. If you enjoyed reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, this book is an absolute must-read. For those who enjoy audiobooks, the Audible version of this book is exceptionally good. This is the best book I’ve read so far in 2021!

Free Cyntoia

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After watching a documentary about Cyntoia Brown, I looked up her memoir, Free Cyntoia. After an extensive trial, the jury convicted Cyntoia for the murder and robbery of Johnny Michael Allen. During her trial, prosecutors painted her as a hardened criminal. This directly led to her lifetime sentence. She would not be eligible for parole until she was nearly seventy years old!

Free Cyntoia by Cyntoia Brown-Long
Free Cyntoia by Cyntoia Brown-Long

For the first few years in prison, Cyntoia was extremely angry about her situation. A Christian university offered her a chance to complete a college degree from prison. During her college years, she became a Christian and settled into a routine in prison.

When Cyntoia’s picture and criminal case went viral online, she saw that the public viewed her in a different light. In these social media posts, Cyntoia was painted as a trafficking victim who killed an older man who paid her for sex. Cyntoia and her legal team realized she might have justification for a retrial, as the law had changed to provide leneancy in cases like hers.

As she fought for her freedom, she began a relationship with the man she ended up marrying. In prison, she advocated for women facing situations similar to her own. Although she was sorry for the murder, she wanted to provide value to the world outside of the prison. In 2019, the governor granted clemency to Cyntoia. Freed, Cyntoia went home to enjoy life with her new husband.

Revisiting the Past

Cyntoia exhausted all of her legal means after her conviction. When she ran out of appeals, clemancy was her only remaining option. Although the laws had changed since she was convicted at sixteen years old, she remained imprisoned.

An older boyfriend forced her into prostitution when she was sixteen years old. By today’s definition, she was trafficked. However, trafficking was not the hot topic back then that it is today. The courts merely saw her situation as prostitution, painting her as a hardened criminal.

Reading this, I began to wonder about how many people remain imprisoned although new standards would have set them free. Rehabilitated individuals may deserve another chance at freedom, even if they haven’t served their entire sentence.

No matter how you feel about marijuana use, you have to struggle a little with the fact that people remain incarcerated in states where marijuana is now fully legal. Our justice system must take a look at these situations (as well as the convictions of minors) to remedy situations where the law has changed.

Rehabilitation in Prison

Although many claim that prison is for both punishment and rehabilitation, it’s no secret that our justice system often fails to rehabilitate criminal offenders. Educational programs, therapy, and classes on life skills should be provided more consistently.

There will always be criminals who offend again. However, we should not stop investing in life change because of criminals who are unwilling to change. It’s especially important to continue to offer rehabilitation programs for individuals incarcerated at a young age.

Maybe I’m naive, but I think we need to do more to holistically treat people facing long-term prison sentences. Cyntoia’s story reminds us that true change is possible, especially when resources and opportunities are provided to people in prison.

Review Breakdown

Writing – The writing was excellent. Cyntoia provided great insight into the feelings surrounding each event in her life.

Story – This story was phenomenal. It was told in an easy-to-understand and linear fashion. The story was engaging from start to finish.

Mature Content – There was sexual content and descriptions of crime, although none of these were described in an especially graphic way. It would be suitable for older teenagers.

Likability of Author – I found Cyntoia extremely likable. Although she made major mistakes, I found myself rooting for her throughout the book. When she started to make positive changes, I was so happy for her. Is it weird to say that I was even proud of her?

BONUS Audiobook Review – I loved the audiobook version of this memoir. Although Cyntoia talked fast, I enjoyed hearing her inflection. She was very expressive, giving me a deeper look into her life story.

Quick Review

I cannot recommend this book enough. It was a great story with inspirational subject matter. If you’re interested in reading about the justice system in America, I highly recommend this book. It gives insight into the appeals process, prison life, and ways the social justice system can be improved in the future. Cyntoia’s story provides a model for rehabilitation of prisoners with long-term prison sentences.

True Notebooks

Why would any sane man with a self-preservation instinct teach a writing class for violent prisoners in his spare time? Mark Salzman, author of True Notebooks, didn’t volunteer at LA’s Central Juvenile Hall because of some idealistic notion of conquering juvenile delinquency through art, one misunderstood youngster at a time. No, Salzman just needed some exposure to young offenders to help flesh out a character in his latest novel, and the writing class was suggested by a friend. Salzman wasn’t crazy about the idea and tried to talk himself out of it by creating a list of reasons this was a bad idea:

  • Students all gangbangers; feel unqualified to evaluate poems about AK-47s
  • Still angry about getting mugged in 1978
  • Still angry about having my apartment robbed in 1986
  • Still angry about my wife’s car being stolen in 1992

His wife settled his indecision by telling him, “You don’t get out of the house enough.”

True Notebooks by Mark Salzman

Salzman was afraid of these kids at first. They were known as HROs, or High-Risk Offenders. Most of them were there for murder, rape, or armed robbery. They weren’t eligible for CYA (California Youth Authority, which releases offenders at age 25). They were to be tried as adults and sent to state prison when convicted.

Salzman’s recollections of the conversations in that class will alternately make the reader guffaw one minute and shake their head with sadness or disgust the next. The book is filled with actual essays and poems from the kids, most of them shockingly honest. They confess their deepest fears, hopes, and regrets. One of the writing prompts Salzman had given them was to write about a constant in their life; a personal North Star. Most wrote about an important person such as a parent or sibling. Family was always a popular topic, and a lot of the kids expressed regret at how their actions had affected those they love.

Many admit that they don’t really care about gang affiliation or race; that gang-banging is just what they have to do to survive in their neighborhood. Their insight into the foolishness of gangs is surprising. Most of them realize the gang was their downfall, and that their “homies” don’t care about them at all. There is the occasional exception to that though, such as the inmate who said, “The day I get released, I’ll go right back to bangin’. Only I’ll be better at it, ‘cause I’ll have had years of advanced study. Didn’t y’all hear? I’m goin’ to the pen—that’s graduate school on full scholarship, for y’all who don’t know.” Then, of course, there is the occasional piece that’s more what you’d expect from criminals—graphic, immoral, and just plain stupid. Salzman recounts a brief exchange between himself and a withdrawn, sullen student who had never actually written anything before: The boy asked him if he could help him spell a word. Salzman, eager to help him come out of his shell, agreed. The word that the barely literate young thug couldn’t spell? ‘Titties.’

Salzman repeatedly makes it clear that keeping order in his class doesn’t come naturally at all. He constantly worries about an inmate starting a fight, or disrupting class so much the guards have to intervene. Happily for Salzman, although he doesn’t demand respect, he gets it. The kids appreciate his time and don’t want to do anything that will make him stop volunteering for that precious hour every week. Still, the kids couldn’t resist his naivete; they had to needle him occasionally. One young man, Nathaniel (the same inmate who insisted he would go right back to ‘bangin’ if released), pretended to be sorry to the point of tears after a particularly difficult class where Salzman had to reprimand him. Salzman softened at the boy’s apparent remorse and told him, “I’ll do my best, I promise. All I ask is that you make an effort, too.” Salzman then sees that Nathaniel isn’t crying at all. No, he’s trying not to laugh! Nathaniel gives his teacher a reality check:

“I gotta tell you, man—you’re way too nice for a place like this! You gonna get played here, over and over. Only it won’t be by somebody like me, who tells you you bein’ played. It’ll be by somebody who really plays you, for somethin’ that matters.”

One inmate, though, impacted Salzman more than the others.

Kevin Johnson, incarcerated for one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder, was the prisoner who seemed to affect Mark Salzman the most. Kevin’s story was tragic: both his parents were killed in a car accident when he was just nine years old, and he and his older brother both turned to gangs and crime. He was a model prisoner. He never gave Mark any trouble, he was looked up to by the other inmates, and even helped to keep order in the writing class. He earned his diploma while locked up, and mentioned it in an essay:

“Graduating from high school taught me a lot about the courage to keep going. I feel I will make it because the look on my aunt’s and my grandma’s face made me feel like the man I was supposed to be.”

Salzman fought LA traffic for several days to attend Kevin’s trial and sentencing. At trial, he learned the full story. Kevin and a group of friends had gone to a movie theater. They were on their way in, and another group from a rival gang was on their way out. Gang signs were thrown, and someone asked Kevin, “What’s up, cuz?” In gang language, that particular phrase is very threatening. This young man then punched Kevin in the face. Fearing for his life (he claimed), Kevin pulled a gun and shot all three of the rival gang members. Two of them survived, but one of them died before medics arrived. Kevin and his friends fled the scene and went to another theater where the same movie they wanted to see was playing. They got there too late, however, and continued to cruise around the city. They were pulled over and arrested a short time later that night. Salzman wrote this about his thoughts and emotions after the trial:

That night I went to bed with a broken heart… One of my students’ victims had a name and a family now, and I had to wrap my mind around the fact that someone I had grown so fond of, and who seemed so gentle, had been foolish enough to go to a movie theater carrying a loaded gun, violent enough to shoot three people with it—two of them in the back—and then callous enough to want to go to a movie afterward.

Kevin was found guilty and sentenced to a total of sixty-six years, eight months for all his crimes. In spite of Salzman’s ambivalence about what Kevin had done, he took it hard. True Notebooks ended with a poem written for Salzman, sent by Kevin Johnson from state prison. The last line of the poem was ‘Dear old friend, North Star,” in reference to the earlier writing prompt.

Quick Review:

This book will get you thinking. The kids featured run the gamut from those who seem to be in the wrong place to young delinquents who appear to be rotten to the core. There’s Kevin Johnson on one end of the spectrum; he expresses remorse, he’s well-behaved and respectful, and he has a great work ethic. One has to wonder if sending him to prison is really the best thing for society. Of course this brings up the issue of justice for the victims, and there’s just no decent answer. Then there’s Ibrahim, who writes stories about a thug named T-Bone who goes around robbing and killing. One fictional clerk was shot for “disrespecting” T-Bone. Salzman asked what, exactly, constituted disrespect. Ibrahim’s shockingly depraved answer? “Tellin’ him to pay for stuff.” This young man genuinely did not understand what was wrong with that. It’s frightening that there are people out there with zero morals or empathy.

More than once I wondered why Mark Salzman kept returning week after week. I’m not the only one; his father and several friends had asked him why he continued teaching the class. After much consideration, he decided that the reason he went there was not because he always enjoyed it, and not because the boys always enjoyed it, but because everyone seemed to agree that it was a good thing to do, and a little good has got to be better than no good at all. That makes a lot of sense. True Notebooks is a thought-provoking, fascinating, hilarious, moving read. Whatever you’re in the mood for, you’ll get your fix. I definitely recommend it.