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Editor's note: Since 2016, Death Row prisoner Lyle May has provided Scalawag readers with critical insights into North Carolina's criminal justice system. From lyrical essays that humanize prisoners, to reporting that unpacks complex policies, May's writing has expressed bold truths from one of the most marginalized parts of society. And he's accomplished this under increasingly difficult conditions, which have interfered with his ability to do this work.
Most recently, May has been inexplicably denied access to college coursework for a degree program he was completing. Other prisoners have been denied access to higher education as well, while officials in the state Department of Public Safety have announced that the agency is in "dark days" with assaults, understaffing, and other problems creating chaos. So why take away the few programs that improve life on the inside by engaging incarcerated people in meaningful endeavors?
May's account explains more about his current situation in this short essay. Scalawag will keep readers updated on May's case and the Department of Public Safety's policies, along with ways you can take action.
When the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act ended Federal Pell Grants for postsecondary correctional education, access to higher education became rare in prison.
While some states have kept limited community college programs in their penal systems, these were largely funded by nonprofit organizations and restricted to people re-emerging into society. A small number of universities offer correspondence courses to prisons, but they are expensive and difficult to fund without assistance. Even then, because there is no longer an educational apparatus in many prisons, gaining support from prison officials can be a trial, as I recently discovered.
Since 2004, I have enrolled in and completed privately-funded college correspondence courses through the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Adams State University, and Ohio University. As an incarcerated student in Ohio University's distance learning program, I earned an Associates in Arts degree with a social science emphasis in 2013. In 2017, I was accepted into OU's Bachelor of Specialized Studies program with the degree title, "Criminal Justice Administration." All of this has been done during my incarceration on death row.
Regardless of custody level or sentence, anyone with the desire to educate themselves should be supported in that endeavor.
Each year my sponsor, a local non-profit organization, funds two or three courses, which are typically facilitated by programs staff at Central Prison. Over the years there have been various obstacles to these courses because, while some wardens and programs staff support individual rehabilitative efforts, others do not. It has never been an insurmountable problem until now.
Since July 2019, the programs director and associate warden of programs have actively obstructed my pursuit of higher education by refusing to sign course registration forms for myself and another incarcerated student on death row. No cause or explanation for the refusal was given. Neither I nor the other student have violated any prison policy. No one from the programs department or prison administration has responded to multiple queries about finishing our degree programs.
Correspondence courses from accredited universities are designed to enable incarcerated student independence, but the process has some basic requirements for prison programs staff. An educational coordinator must: 1) sign course registration forms and exam applications in a manner consistent with university deadlines, 2) receive course materials such as textbooks, course syllabuses, and calculators for delivery to the student, and 3) designate a proctor for exams who administers, signs, and mails completed exams. Adhering to these university requirements signal prison approval and support of an incarcerated student's correspondence courses.
In addition to the above requirements are some other basic needs from the programs department. Staff should enter a student's transcript into his or her prison file for review by a case manager, court, or parole commission when applicable; communicate with academic advisors when necessary; and communicate with students on a regular basis. This is central to the function of an educational apparatus in prison. Maybe these things occur for correspondence students at other facilities, but it is likely they face problems similar to my own since no state-wide penal policy instructs staff in this matter. Also, because it often depends on which prison officials encourage higher education and which do not, a great deal of uncertainty exists around privately funded college correspondence courses in North Carolina prisons.
Higher education is about personal growth and transforming one's thinking. Credentials, preparing for reentry, and becoming a productive member of society in or out of prison are byproducts of that process.
In a letter to the newly appointed Commissioner of Prisons, Todd Ishee, I explained this situation and asked him to create a policy that removes the uncertainty and preserves the pursuit of privately funded correspondence courses in North Carolina prisons, a policy that instructs programs staff to encourage and facilitate individual rehabilitative efforts. Regardless of custody level or sentence, anyone with the desire to educate themselves should be supported in that endeavor.
The warden of Central Prison, in reply to previous requests for access to a privately funded GED program for other death row prisoners, has said death row inmates are not in prison to be rehabilitated. I understand this sentiment and recognize many in the public harbor a similar belief.
Though I am on death row, my case is under appeal – meaning I am contesting my conviction and sentence. It is entirely reasonable to believe I could gain relief from my death row sentence through the appellate courts. Since 1973, the reversal rate of death sentences on appeal in North Carolina is nearly 75 percent. During that time, there have been eight exonerations. The most recent exoneree, Henry McCallum, was released after 30 years on death row and hindered by his lack of education.
It is imperative that I pursue every educational opportunity regardless of whatever relief may come of my appeals. There is, for example, a small number of degree-bearing prisoners who mentor young, uneducated prisoners or facilitate educational programs within the prison system. There is even a new degree-bearing ministry program at Nash Correctional Institution, funded by former NFL coach and NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs, that trains life-sentenced prisoners to become counselors and assistant chaplains.
Working toward a college correspondence degree is a productive use of any prisoner's time when so few state-funded programs exist. Considering the recent systemic failures that have made NC prisons more dangerous for staff and offenders, encouraging individual rehabilitative efforts, rather than discouraging and obstructing them, is critical to changing that violent narrative. Most importantly, higher education is about personal growth and transforming one's thinking. Credentials, preparing for reentry, and becoming a productive member of society in or out of prison are byproducts of that process.
Once the commissioner rebuilds the educational apparatus in North Carolina's penal system, staff will be more likely to embrace a rehabilitative ideal that has a lasting positive impact on prisoners and the communities they return to. As a former warden from Ohio, Commissioner Ishee seems to be aware of this. In a recent television interview he expressed a need to address the "mental wellbeing" and ability of North Carolina prisoners to reenter society without recidivating. Higher education addresses both of these needs.