6. San Francisco State University

In early 2013 I began sending letters to professors who taught criminal justice courses in the San Francisco Bay area. If they thought it would be helpful, I offered to visit and provide their students with a different perspective. Many students who majored in criminal justice wanted to pursue careers in corrections, probation, or other law enforcement professions. I knew the students would’ve read many theoretical textbooks on corrections or different sociological theories. Listening to someone who could share first-hand experiences might contribute to their educational experience.

Dr. Jeffrey Snipes, from San Francisco State University, responded to my letter. He led the criminal justice department at SFSU and he invited me to visit with him at the university. Jeff’s email encouraged me, as I’d never stepped foot on a university campus before. I had invitations to speak at other universities later in the school year, but I looked forward to meeting Jeff and walking through the campus. He told me that he had read one of my books when he was in graduate school, years earlier.

When I visited SFSU for the first time, I felt a sense of what I had missed as a consequence of the bad decisions I made as a young man. Thousands of students walked around the campus and they all looked as if they had so much promise. Jeff and one of his colleagues listened as I told them my story. We spoke for about an hour and then Jeff asked if I would like to work at SFSU. I didn’t quite get his question. My thoughts were that we were having a discussion about my making contributions as a guest speaker. Instead, he asked if I wanted to become a part of the faculty, as a guest lecturer, an adjunct professor.

 

University Influence

Universities had a huge influence on my adjustment through prison. Although I didn’t get to experience university campus life as a student, Jeff and his colleagues opened an amazing opportunity for me to teach. He invited me to design my own course that we titled The Architecture of Incarceration. I would begin teaching in August, 2013, less than three weeks after I concluded my prison sentence.

I spent hundreds of hours preparing for the semester. Although my job only required me to teach 30 students, I accepted every student who wanted to enroll. Teaching opened opportunities to influence people who would devote their careers to criminal justice, and I wanted to serve them well.

In designing the course, I set a goal of helping the students understand influences that led to our nation’s massive prison system. We incarcerated more people per capita than any other nation on earth. But the US didn’t always have the world’s largest prison population. Our commitment to mass incarceration didn’t begin until the early 1970s, accelerating around the time that I began serving time—when President Reagan launched the War on Drugs. I wanted students in my class to understand how we “architected” the path to mass incarceration.

To begin the class, I told the students about my history of selling cocaine as a young man and about my transformation while serving 26 years as a prisoner. They were somewhat astounded, I think, when I revealed my past. Whenever students referred to me as “professor,” I’d insist they call me Michael, reminding them that I’d only recently finished serving a prison term. We spent that first class going over my complete history. I encouraged them to ask anything about my past, my prison experience, or my expectations about life upon release. Each class lasted nearly three hours and I pledged to be 100% authentic with them.

During the second class, we discussed the evolution of punishment in Western civilization. Prior to the 18th century, I pointed out, we didn’t use prisons or confinement as a punishment. Instead, we only used confinement as a kind of holding center until after the trial. After a finding of guilt, the offender would usually suffer some type of corporal punishment—meaning authorities would punish the body, usually with mutilation or death. They would behead convicted felons, or rip apart the body in grotesque ways. One example was drawing and quartering. They would tie a rope to each limb and fasten each rope to a different horse. Then, on cue, the horses would each race off in a different direction, ripping the person’s body apart. Other examples of corporal punishment included setting the body on fire, or drilling holes into the flesh and then filling the holes with molten steel.

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