This article was published in partnership with Prison Journalism Project, a national, independent news organization that trains incarcerated writers to be journalists and publishes their writing. Subscribe to their newsletter here.

What is the point of jails and prisons?

Many in society may say: “To punish people who have committed a crime or offense against society.” A smaller portion may say: “Rehabilitation.”

My name is Jeffrey Shockley. I reside in a Pennsylvania prison, serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. You can also refer to my sentence as death by incarceration.

I am one of thousands of similarly sentenced individuals who have changed their lives for the better in prison. Despite our growth, we are constantly scrutinized, criticized and marginalized. Politicians use us, and our crimes, as ammunition against reformers who want to change the antiquated ideologies and laws that keep people unnecessarily locked away for decades.

As I sit here in the 23rd year of my sentence, I’ve demonstrated a positive mentality, changed my behaviors and built an institutional resume of educational classes and rehabilitative programs. I’m not the same person today that I was 23 years ago. I’m no longer a problem child who behaves in destructive ways.

When you break prison rules, whether it’s for a minor offense such as lending and borrowing, or a more major offense such as fighting, you’re written up for misconduct. During my two decades in prison, I’ve received only one misconduct report, and spent 30 days in the hole for it. I plead guilty to possessing an extra razor — which I still maintain I didn’t have — in hopes of keeping a job that I wound up losing anyway.

It’s commendable that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections provides basic education and GED classes, as well as various vocational classes, to people who want to better themselves. I have been able to participate in many programs and classes that expand the mind and provide some hope.

I want to have tangible tools to help others and be able to support myself should I ever get out.

The prisons also offer welding, computer-aided design, plumbing and electrical courses through the Maintenance Department. Correctional industries teach metal fabrication and machining, where incarcerated people learn to make license plates.

One of the programs I participated in was the University of Pittsburgh Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. The program has since spread to other Pennsylvania prisons. In the exchange program, professors teach college-level courses in English literature, composition and creative writing. The unique aspect of the course is that students join inmates on the inside for classes.

Those lessons melted the prison walls away for me. When we stepped in the classroom, we were all just students, together as peers. We turned in weekly homework and discussed topics such as prison reform and what social justice means to someone who may never be free.

This experience touched me in so many positive ways. It helped me to grow as a writer. I explored topics I would not have ever considered in prison, including the plight of immigrant children. In one course, we read Daniel Beaty’s play, “Emergency.” The cherry on top was having the actor come into the prison and perform his play live.

I’m not the same person today that I was 23 years ago. I’m no longer a problem child who behaves in destructive ways.Jeffrey Shockley

It is easy to think that your life is over when serving a life sentence, but that hasn’t been the case for me. Being able to participate and grow through these opportunities has given me hope.

There’s a thought experiment that I think explains my point well. Envision a person getting a job to flip burgers. They continually demonstrate quality and efficiency, but their supervisor still does not believe they are capable. They may leave to get a better job. 

A person serving a life sentence does not have the luxury of leaving if there isn’t room for growth. We continue to sit here for decades, regardless. But because of classes and programs, and our desire to change, many of us have excelled beyond real or imagined expectations. The problem is that so many of us are stuck here, growing older and eating up taxpayer money despite our excellence.

As things are now, investments into us often don’t make it back to our communities back home — communities we have damaged and that we want to repair. Would youth not benefit from those of us who are no longer young, but whose experiences could help to deter today’s violence?

Many of us would love the chance to strengthen and encourage the communities we lived in. We want to share our knowledge and experience with younger generations we’ve left behind to make sure they don’t travel the same path we did.

What’s the point of rehabilitation if the only part of us that society sees is the part we’ve finally left behind?

Jeffrey Shockley, originally from Philadelphia, is a writer now serving a life sentence in the State Correctional Institution-Fayette.

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