Tuesday night at Skeptics for the 2015 James Youngelson Lecture on Ethics & Responsibility, Blair welcomed accomplished guest speaker Walter Fortson, who told the remarkable story of how he went from serving time behind bars, after being convicted for dealing crack cocaine, to graduating from Rutgers University as a Truman Scholar. His story was extraordinary and revealed first hand the true importance of education and prison reform.
Fortson, raised in Philadelphia, was born into a lower-middle class family that didn’t have much money. His parents worked multiple jobs in order for their son to attend a private Catholic school instead of the local public schools, which his parents felt would not be able to provide their son with a proper education. After graduating, Fortson attended Temple University. He did well academically, but soon became bored with the lectures and decided he’d rather do something else with his life.
After dropping out of school, he found himself at a loss for money, so he decided to start a car resale business by investing in cheap cars and repairing them before selling them for profits; however, this business ended when he was told he needed a license. He then began buying large quantities of sneakers and reselling them on EBay, an operation that was also shut down for legal issues. When his son was born, he was desperate for money, so he accepted an offer to sell crack cocaine. After surviving years in the drug business (having almost being murdered multiple times) Fortson was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison.
While in prison, Fortson mentioned that the first thing he noticed was that everyone around him was “black or brown”, and that most were poor. He began reading to pass time in prison, and educated himself on the topics of slavery, racial injustice, and the fight for racial equality. He began to appreciate the importance of education, and felt motivated to pursue higher education upon his release from prison. When a Rutgers History Professor reached out to him and presented him with the opportunity to study at the university, he eagerly accepted.
He thrived at Rutgers and graduated in 2013 with the honor of becoming the first Truman Scholar that Rutgers had had in eleven years. He then went on to study for a year at Cambridge. His unique story shows that no matter where you come from, hard work and self-discipline can pay off; however, you must be willing to change for the better.
Upon graduating, his goal was to help create a better future for people like him who had made mistakes and ended up in prison. Because of this desire, he became involved with the Petey Greene program, which provides undergrads with the opportunity to tutor inmates. Many New England schools now have this program and regularly send volunteers to nearby prisons to educate inmates who otherwise would likely lack the education necessary to find employment after their release. Today it is extremely hard to find employment, especially if you have a criminal record and lack a higher education degree. Without opportunities for education, employment is nearly impossible to find for ex-convicts and many once again find themselves behind bars. If it had not been for the opportunities that Fortson was presented with while in prison, his fate might have been very different. His story was a powerful one that opened the eyes of many Blair students about the severity of the issues today within prisons, specifically the problems regarding education.
(Copyright Sarah Field 2015) (Photo from Blair.edu)