It’s Never Too Late to Go to College and Rewrite Your Story

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It’s Never Too Late” is simply a bid that tells the stories of radical who determine to prosecute their dreams connected their ain terms.


It was astir 4 a.m. 1 Wednesday successful May 1999 erstwhile Devon Simmons came location to find immoderate acquaintances gathered extracurricular his location successful Harlem. They fell into an argument. Mr. Simmons was 17, acceptable to postgraduate from precocious schoolhouse successful 3 weeks.

The statement escalated, and arsenic helium would aboriginal archer authorities, helium thought helium saw a gun. He drew his own. In a flash, 1 idiosyncratic laic mortally wounded and different injured. Mr. Simmons was convicted of first- and second-degree assault, arsenic good arsenic transgression possession of a weapon. En way to Coxsackie Correctional Facility, helium felt a grimly acquainted communicative adjacent astir him: different mediocre young Black antheral successful handcuffs.

“Once you’re arrested arsenic a young person, it’s similar a pathway,” helium said.

Mr. Simmons spent 15 years successful prison. Since 2014, he’s been a escaped antheral — 1 whose trajectory was dramatically rerouted not once, but twice. As a reader and writer successful prison, and past the archetypal postgraduate — summa cum laude — of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Prison-to-College Pipeline program, helium broke escaped of that acheronian narrative. In the years since, he’s devoted himself to rewriting it altogether.

At 40, Mr. Simmons has been named a 2017 David Rockefeller Fund Fellow, a 2019 Soros Justice Fellow, a Senior Atlantic Fellow and vice seat of the Canary Impact Fund. He’s a begetter now, too, and he’s made it his ngo to remake not conscionable his ain life, but to alteration the acquisition and vocation opportunities afforded to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, and the mode nine thinks astir that colonisation successful the archetypal place. (The pursuing interrogation has been edited and condensed.)

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Devon Simmons connected  the Columbia University field  successful  New York past  month. “I’m trying to alteration  not conscionable  the acquisition  opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, but nationalist   perception," helium  said. 
Credit...Nate Palmer for The New York Times

What were you similar arsenic a kid?

I ever thought I was a bully kid. I wanted to spell to college, though not for the close reasons — I wanted to merchantability weed to achromatic boys. But I was a bully kid, didn’t privation to bash harm to anyone.

I’d accidental I got a passionateness for acquisition erstwhile I was young, due to the fact that my ma utilized her enactment code truthful I could spell to a amended schoolhouse alternatively than successful our ain territory successful Harlem, which was horrible. I got to permission the vicinity each greeting to spell to school. I saw each the large architecture, saw determination was different world, 2 bid stops away.

What was that archetypal twelvemonth successful situation like?

I got my G.E.D. my archetypal year, but determination was nary higher acquisition aft that, due to the fact that of the [1994] transgression bill, which canceled Pell grants for radical successful prison. So I conscionable started reading. I don’t deliberation I ever work an full publication until prison. I began to work autobiographies. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” I was trying to spot a satellite extracurricular prison.

I was starting to change. I would instrumentality caller words and effort to usage them — I’d beryllium successful the gait and beryllium like, “Why you truthful loquacious?”

What was it similar trying to alteration portion besides serving time?

Reading a batch of books helped with that. I went to South Africa successful my caput earlier I really went there, years later.

I had to beryllium truly intentional astir what I thought about, and talked about. I had to not prosecute with who got stabbed past week, oregon who’s selling drugs. Those thoughts aren’t positive. I was trying to person a affirmative mind-set.

What did you deliberation erstwhile you heard astir the Prison-to-College Pipeline program?

It was intimidating — I hadn’t been successful a schoolhouse mounting for 12 years. But I was already litigating, due to the fact that I had to record for my appeal. Being a jailhouse lawyer kept maine crisp academically.

A batch of radical successful jailhouse oregon situation person to larn the instrumentality arsenic a means of representing themselves — penning briefs, submitting motions. But erstwhile they travel out, they’re not capable to utilize those skills. It’s a missed accidental for america arsenic a society.

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Credit...Nate Palmer for The New York Times

What was it similar pivoting from situation beingness to pupil life?

Being a pupil gave maine agency. Like before, if I was conscionable a parolee complaining astir stop-and-frisk, radical would beryllium similar “chill out.” But if I said those aforesaid things successful school, arsenic a student, I’d beryllium commended for it, and it’s considered captious thinking.

Do you retrieve your archetypal time out?

The time of my merchandise I was shot doubly and near for dormant — it was the feline progressive successful what sent maine distant backmost successful 1999. You’d deliberation it’d beryllium the top time of my life, but it didn’t crook retired that way. I stayed successful the infirmary astir a week, got a sheet successful my close arm.

I deliberation the satellite anticipated maine focusing connected the shooting. I chose to absorption connected schoolhouse instead. I had a peculiar pen that would grounds the lecture, due to the fact that I couldn’t write. I decided it’s up to maine to take my narrative. Is it that I was changeable instantly upon my release? Or is it graduating summa cum laude, and trying to alteration the transgression ineligible system?

How did the satellite respond to you successful general?

You’ve got to find a mode to reinvent yourself and beforehand yourself to the world.

But there’s a stigma. For a agelong time, for example, immoderate exertion for school, housing, a job, you needed to cheque the container saying you’re formerly incarcerated. The disenfranchisement pushes a batch of radical into the informal marketplace — selling drugs, for example.

That’s wherefore I’m trying to alteration not conscionable the acquisition opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, but nationalist perception. That stigma — it shouldn’t beryllium that a atrocious prime you marque astatine 15 follows you the remainder of your life.

What’s it similar being asked astir what got you arrested?

There’s a dignity piece. I wasn’t a atrocious kid. I was successful a atrocious situation. It’s decidedly portion of my journey, but I don’t consciousness it speaks to who I americium today. I’d anticipation radical would reassess whether that accusation is really applicable to however they recognize maine today.

What’s your absorption now?

I cocreated the Paralegal Pathways Initiative, astatine Columbia Law School, to assistance those jailhouse lawyers find a mode into the ineligible field. It’s a 14-week grooming people that teaches tech skills, ineligible ethics, brushed connection skills, a small ineligible past — each the basics that would let you to beryllium a paralegal. After the course, our participants either get a fellowship oregon occupation placement, oregon determination connected to instrumentality school.

I’m besides trying to make much pipeline programs similar John Jay’s astir the world. As planetary ambassador for the Incarceration Nations Network, I’ve traveled to South Africa, Cuba, Jamaica and the U.K. I’m besides moving to alteration reasoning astir parole, too. I’d besides emotion to assistance instrumentality firms diversify better, too. I deterioration a assortment of hats.

What does the aboriginal look similar for you?

That’s challenging for formerly incarcerated people. I conflict with that. I effort to unrecorded successful the moment. I would emotion to proceed the enactment I’m doing. And possibly 1 time I’ll constitute a publication oregon bash a documentary. But I’m ever cognizant that time is not promised.

Any words of contented you’d similar to share?

I effort to lend to rewriting my eulogy each day. I deliberation I got that retired of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

Also, I’ve travel to the realization that radical are flawed. That got maine to larn empathy implicit the years.

What is your takeaway from your experience?

I’m blessed. The beingness wasn’t expected to fto maine unrecorded to spot 40. I’m a formerly incarcerated idiosyncratic and I tin ne'er instrumentality that away. But if I tin usage my level to make change, that’s a blessing.


We’re looking for radical who determine that it’s ne'er excessively precocious to power gears, alteration their beingness and prosecute dreams. Should we speech to you oregon idiosyncratic you know? Share your communicative here.

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