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Pontbriant: A testament to the power of education in prison

Editor’s note: This column is part of a two-part piece on the Brown History Education Initiative and the Brown Incarceration Initiative. For a Brown student’s perspective, click here.

 Jean-Paul Sartre said, “As far as men go, it is not what they are that interests me, but what they may become.” For someone convicted of a serious crime and serving a lengthy prison sentence, this simple statement is especially meaningful. It speaks of hope and faith in the redemptive spirit existing within us all. It also forecasts a future full of possibility for those who are given the tools and opportunity to succeed.

Upon receiving my sentence, I felt the world collapse around me. Any hope or faith I may have had were squelched in an instant. Sadly, I retreated within myself and tried to close out the world. I was attempting to resign myself to the bleak and hopeless future I believed lay ahead. But, try as I might, I could not kill completely that engine which seemingly drives us all: curiosity, the desire to know and understand. So I began to read — and the world opened up to me.

In prison I discovered a love for learning I never knew existed. The more I read and the more I learned, the thirstier I became. The next logical step, and the only way I believed I could sate my growing thirst, was to pursue a college education, an endeavor I would never even have considered before coming to prison (economic and social roadblocks being the main deterrents).

Unfortunately for millions of Americans like myself, who, for one reason or another, now find themselves on the wrong side of a cell door, chasing the dream of a college education has become a challenge fraught with all manner of obstacles. Access and availability loom the largest. Yet, there is a deeper, more ominous hindrance facing those striving to better themselves from behind the walls of a prison: the notion that we are no longer worthy, that somehow, upon entering the prison system, we surrendered our humanity at the gate and have been forever recast as undesirables — men and women incapable of reform or redemption.

So when I first heard rumors that Brown may be considering offering accredited courses and possibly a degree program here at the ACI, my interest and excitement were piqued. I thought to myself, “Finally the fog of fear and disdain are beginning to lift.” With the implementation of such a program, Brown, one of the most revered and respected institutions of higher learning in the world, would be emphatically saying, “These men and women have value. If we as a society are serious about solving the problem of mass incarceration, we can no longer relegate these men and women to the unending vortex of that vicious cycle. We must be proactive!”

An opportunity to shed the stigma and stereotypes associated with incarceration, a chance to prove to society as well as to ourselves that, if we are provided the means, not only will we succeed but we will flourish — well, that would be invaluable!

In the spirit of Jean-Paul Sartre’s sentiment, Mumia Abu-Jamal, in his epic work “Live from Death Row,” asks, “What societal interest is served by prisoners who remain illiterate? What societal benefit is there in ignorance? How are people corrected while imprisoned if their education is outlawed? Who profits (other than the prison establishment itself) from stupid prisoners?”

I end this now by posing the same questions to you.

Jeremy Pontbriant is a student in the Brown History Education Initiative. To reply to Pontbriant, email and every effort will be made to deliver it. Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to



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