It is a cool, crisp autumn day; the kind that reminds you winter is right around the corner, that change is on the horizon. Behind the barbed-wire fences of Wallkill Correctional Facility a change has already occurred. Jermaine Haywood, a 39-year-old former drug dealer, has transformed his life. After doing his time, he will be leaving prison with an associate’s degree in Liberal Arts from NYU’s Prison Education Program. With graduation only days away, he recalls his journey.
“As a teenager, things were hard at home,” Haywood said during an interview in PEP’s computer lab. “I quit high school to focus on my responsibilities. The bills were adding up and my family needed me.”
Street life eventually caught up with him. “By age 17,” he continues, “I was on Riker’s Island awaiting sentencing for some drug sales I made in order to put food on the table.”
He pauses, and a smile slowly worms its way onto his face. “This is where I met this 24-year-old kid who was serving a life sentence. His name escapes me now, but his advice stuck with me forever. He instilled in me the importance of education, how I needed it to work my way out of the chains imposed on me. His words inspired me to get my GED while locked up. Out of 24 people who were in the class, only two passed. I was one of them.”
Despite his success, Haywood found that escaping the cycle of incarceration was harder than he’d thought. Returning to the streets, he fell back into his old habits. In 2013, he was arrested for possession of drugs with the intent to sell and subsequently sentenced to five years in prison with five years post-supervision. After being ping-ponged across the state, he finally ended up at Wallkill Correctional Facility. Upon his arrival, he learned of PEP and was extremely enthusiastic. It was a win-win situation: the opportunity to finally further his education, and if he earned 24 credits he would become eligible for his Limited Credit Time Allowance, which gave him six months off his sentence.
“Joining NYU was one of the best decisions of my life,” Haywood said when asked about the impact PEP had on him. “In ‘Values of Life,’ taught by Professor Michael Ralph, my eyes were opened to the oppression we face on a daily basis. In ‘Leadership Skills,’ taught by professor Dolly Chugh, I became an active listener and my communication skills greatly improved.”
Haywood’s thinking process has drastically changed. He no longer wants to go back to the block and “chase the bag.”
“Upon my release I plan on furthering my education by pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science Engineering through NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering,” Haywood said. “After my tutelage at NYU I realized education is the key to success. That realization and earning my associate degree [sic] are my greatest rewards from the program — it is something no one can ever take away from me.”
To all current and future students at NYU, especially those in PEP, Haywood has a message.
“In order to succeed you have to commit. You have to apply yourself and embrace your weaknesses instead of letting them control you.” He went on to praise PEP’s staff.
“These people dedicate parts of their lives to give us the opportunity to succeed. The teachers empower us to think. It is only fair that we reciprocate with enthusiasm. That we hold education in the highest esteem.”
This story has been approved for publication by an official with Wallkill Correctional Facility.
Joseph Beer is a student in NYU’s Prison Education Program. Email him at [email protected]