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Roadblocks and resets on the way to redemption

"We are complex Black men with more to us than people who do not identify as Black men have the capacity to understand."

Satchel Bunch-Wimbley

WORDS: Satchel Bunch-Wimbley

PHOTO: Nicole Carr

Dog, plus picket fence, plus homeownership, is the equation that equals the American Dream. Media depictions of college graduates waving in front of their ranch-style homes, with their two kids, luxury vehicles, and well-tailored clothes are the images society depicts as success. This image of success looks obtainable for some, typically those who check the ‘white’ box on job applications. However, for generations of Black people, men in particular, the ideals of success look different—oftentimes sans materials and riddled with the inability to survive or remove themselves from their current conditions.  

To achieve this “dream,” a music career, an athletic career, or a life of crime seems to be the answer—the latter typically resulting in prison or an early grave. And while some may choose a collegiate route to join the 29.5% of Black men with Bachelor’s degrees in the U.S., according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, they still share the commonality of years of racial bias and oppression that makes achieving the dream harder and prison more accessible than that white picket fence.


Satchel comes from a single-parent household. His parents had a co-parenting relationship where his father is still active and a provider. However, his mother—a lawyer—was his primary guardian. The ability to have two involved parents, whether together or not, already puts him above those with only one active parent on the privilege chart. He grew up in a rough area. However, his mother saw it pertinent to invest in Satchel and his sibling’s future, placing them both in private schools and extracurricular activities. Satchel would go on to attend an HBCU for college and pursue a career in media, with plenty of support from family and friends, as well as the privilege of therapy sessions to keep his mental health on track.

Though Satchel is immersed in privilege, he is still one wrong decision away from being a ward of the Department of Justice. A bad decision could be as simple as failing to signal or making a wrong turn. As a Black man, he’s been harassed by police and even hand-cuffed, forced to code-switch in professional settings, and keep his balance on the tightrope of modern American society as a means of survival. A Criminology course taught him the actual inner workings of urban crime and the risks of punishment those who look like him endure to survive. It challenged him to look at incarcerated people in a different light. In partnership with Morehouse College National Incarceration Association and his Investigative Journalism class, Satchel met two people who showed him just how much his path to the “American Dream” can be challenged.

Shanard grew up in the West End neighborhood of Atlanta, ironically, near the same area Satchel now attends school. The area, after a prolonged period of decay, is now experiencing revitalization via gentrification, and looks utterly different from what it did before Shanard’s incarceration. Shanard, also of a single-parent household, did not have an active father. However, his mother was heavily invested in his future, taking a risk and enrolling him into school outside of his zoned community—an act that would land her in jail for educational larceny nowadays.

“Education was important,” said Shanard. “[Her] actions spoke to that.”

Shanard considered himself a “delinquent” in his early years of education, yet he made it a goal to be the first male in his family to graduate high school. His behavior, however, didn’t align with that goal and he fell into the pitfalls of trying to survive his environment. His mother encouraged him to clean up his act and prioritize his studies, but eventually, the streets won. He became truant, began hanging out with the wrong crowd, and finally landed himself in an unfortunate situation that resulted in a murder.

Around the time he was incarcerated, there was virtually no leniency for teen offenders. President Bill Clinton, with the help of other legislators, including current President Joe Biden (then senator), passed the 1994 Crime Bill that ensured that even adolescents received harsh and excessive sentences. This was done to scare citizens into lowering the crime rate instead of instilling policies to curb the factors that lead to crime. Shanard is one of the many teenagers who went through the justice system and labeled as a “Superpredator.”

Twenty-plus years later, Shanard doesn't let his past define his future. In a system that would rather punish than rehabilitate, it is usually entirely up to the incarcerated individual to rehabilitate themselves to be able to reintegrate into society. Shanard took full advantage of whatever resources he could, becoming one of the first students in the higher learning program at his facility. He took general university courses but mainly excelled in his humanities course, where he could apply the knowledge he learned in those classes to broaden his overall idea of the world around him. “The study of people is important; as a businessman, you should understand the psychology of people,” said Shanard. “It helps you be relatable and have conversations with people in any level of life.”

His classes were small, with the parameters of the prison facility still being heavily enforced. He went to classrooms with cell bars. He didn’t have access to the internet. His areas of study weren’t catered to students compared to traditional colleges' facilities. Regardless of all these difficulties, Shanard took full advantage of his time and excelled in his studies. He also recruited new students into the program, giving others the same opportunity he had to gain the benefits of education no matter their current situation. His support system of fellow inmates and teachers who believed in him pushed him to complete his studies and gave him fresh new perspectives on the world. The material he was learning, as well as the pure passion these teachers in unconventional learning spaces brought to him every day left him with an urge not to let his support system down. His only regret in life is taking the life of another young man decades ago. “I learned early on to forgive myself and not to beat myself up because some people suffer from unforgiveness, not only from others but themselves; you gotta keep it moving. But along with that, it comes with not being numb to the pain you caused others,” said Shanard. He is an exception to the American prison system, striving in his post-release situation in comparison to others who struggle with recidivism. He’s pursuing a real estate license and is still adamant about spreading awareness and doing his part to ensure no one has to endure the trials and tribulations he had to, as well as helping those still in the prison system.


Derrick, like Shanard, is from Atlanta. He is also an alumni of Common Good. Growing up, Derrick never really prioritized school. Seeing the poor conditions of his community, the desire for fast money took precedence over the collegiate route. He wanted to ensure that he could care for himself and his family without relying on the government assistance that most of his community relied on. Unfortunately, in his efforts of survival, his illegal lifestyle caught up with him. Amid a robbery gone wrong, Derrick took a life. He was arrested and charged as an adult, leading to 28 years behind bars. No prom. No campus tours. No dorm move-in. Derrick, who would’ve also been considered a “Superpredator” by the crime bill, spent the rest of his adolescence, 20s and 30s behind bars. Upon entering prison, he challenged himself to change.

Education became a priority. While in prison, Derrick was afforded a rehabilitation tool with the Common Good. He enrolled in the second chance college program, majoring in Sociology and Communications (like Satchel).  Derrick credits positive reinforcement and the support of his professors to his success and his ability to push forward in his education. His support ignites a light for him to support others. Derrick has made it a personal goal to educate himself to adapt to the world post-release and help change the narrative. He is also fully invested in the goal of shedding light on those incarcerated, stating that there’s “a need to understand the psychology of those behind bars.”

Though I realized I would encounter roadblocks to my American Dream, I didn’t fully realize my privilege until conducting these interviews. By now, you know I’m Satchel, a 23-year-old New Yorker enamored by the peace of the South and named after the historical baseball player Satchel Paige. I conducted interviews with Shanard and Derrick and realized our similarities and differences.

To start, we all come from urban areas in major cities. In the case of Shanard and myself, we received education in areas outside our tumultuous neighborhoods, leaving us with experiences we couldn’t find at home. We all grew up around people who engaged in criminal behaviors essentially for survival. We had parents who emphasized education through actions, but at some point, we thought for ourselves and put a priority on education on our own. We attended college, and the materials and experiences we had shaped new ideas and perceptions of the world we most likely wouldn’t have known without it. When we look in the mirror, we are complex Black men with more to us than people who do not identify as Black men have the capacity to understand.

And then there are the differences.

During my interviews, I realized Shanard and Derrick didn’t have the resources I had to stay away from relying on crime for survival. Of course, they dreamt of the big houses and fancy cars that the drug dealers in movies and rappers on the radio had, but priority was survival. They were teenagers in an era that vilified Black teenagers in compromising situations instead of trying to understand them. Upon their incarceration, they took the same courses as me but with much more difficulty and strenuous pushback. I’m currently typing this essay on my Macbook Pro in my home office with Jazz music from one of my favorite bands, Deodato, playing in the background. I can choose where I take my classes, whether in a classroom or from the comfort of my room. There’s no one to tell me when and where I can eat, who I can see, where I can go. I have full bodily autonomy and privilege that I could hardly imagine before the interviews.

This can’t be said for people in positions like Shanard and Derrick. Their classrooms are heavily monitored. In a separate facility, students still have to go through security checks that may stop them from attending classes. The professors do as well. On average, in facilities across the country, only 10% of the inmates are admitted into these programs; however, these students don’t receive any special treatment or accommodations. The guards who watch them may only have a GED at most, sometimes creating resentment towards those fortunate enough to pursue their Associate's and Bachelor’s degrees. This leads to unfair treatment and sometimes punishments, resulting in suspensions or expulsions from programs. At least every traditional college student in the country has access to the internet. The same cannot be said for Common Good members who must consult with teachers to get new studies or articles printed to complete their assignments. Their only time to interact with their classmates and help each other is when they’re free to walk around, leaving them lonely in a position where teamwork makes the difference. Yet still, Shanard and Derrick persevered and completed their studies, hoping to rebuild their lives and change the narratives of formerly incarcerated people in the process. Their drive and passion instilled in me the motivation to tell their stories and the tales of many others who may, unfortunately, be in their shoes.

Unfortunately, Shanard and Derrick are exceptions to the American Prison system. Their stories of redemption are not familiar. The prison system focuses more on profit and punishment than rehabilitation, which often leads to recidivism and repeat offenders. Rehabilitation starts before someone is incarcerated: It is prevention techniques such as mental health resources, job and education opportunities, and equitable and accessible basic needs like food, shelter, and water. It is mental health services after the crime, and education opportunities to shift social class and mindsets. It's the development of healthy conflict resolution and coping skills that prevent recidivism. In contrast, it’s easy to think, “Why should they get a free education while I have to pay $20,000-plus for school?” Answer: Because America likes to challenge those lower on the totem pole rather than look at those on top.

Simply put, it helps. The men I interviewed for this project are some of the most articulate, intellectual, accountable, and self-aware people I’ve ever met. To endure all they had to do and walk out on the other side as better people is admirable and something I hope to have the capacity and willpower to do in my everyday life. But as mentioned earlier, they had a support system that pushed them to the results, and maybe if everyone in the prison system had that, we could produce healthier well-rounded individuals post-incarceration. However, it all starts with changing our overall perception of Black incarcerated people.

One of the factors that helped shape my current view was the documentary, “College Behind Bars,” which focuses on another education program in upstate New York, named the BARD program. This is the same program that beat Harvard University in a speech and debate contest two years ago. One of the featured students, Rodney Spivey-Jones, wrote about Messianic Black bodies and Black people using them as symbols, which is ironic due to his incarceration being an example of the experiences marginalized people face in this country. A quote from his paper adequately sums up not only the fight for better treatment of incarcerated people in this country but also the fight against racial inequality: “The Black body is a prison of flesh, and the truth is unforgiving. African Americans no more relinquish their signifying Black bodies than they can change the history of this nation. But they must continue to demand.”


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