JOURNAL: Finding Second Chances

About eight years ago, Shanyiell McCloud would walk over to Marquette University Law School wearing a Marquette T-shirt and hat, pretending to be just another student enrolled at the school. As a student at Milwaukee Area Technical College and a member of the paralegal club at the time, McCloud had big dreams of attending law school someday. 

“Do I get a chance to be a lawyer? Do I get a chance to go to Marquette? Is this for real?” McCloud would wonder while sitting at empty tables in the law school. “I had just chalked it up in my brain that I just couldn’t do it. I wasn’t gonna be able to do it because of my record. I just … I thought I was out, I really did. I thought it was over.”

As a survivor of domestic violence in 2005, McCloud chose to fight back. But in doing so, both she and her abuser were arrested in 2006.

“It was a big fight,” McCloud says. “One-time occurrences can last you a lifetime of opportunities.”

After being convicted in 2007 and sentenced to seven months in the Milwaukee House of Correction, she served 18 months on probation. Between going in and out of court, McCloud says she also lost her job at Northwestern Mutual at the age of 25. 

By the time everything was over, four years had passed.

McCloud is now a student in Marquette University’s Educational Preparedness Program, a program specifically designed for providing incarcerated individuals a second chance at educational or professional advancement through blended courses. So far, she has taken classes in surveillance law, Native American history and creative poetry writing. 

“It’s like a dream, you know? I feel like somebody is going to wake me up and be like, ‘Yeah, you know, that’s over with,’” she says. “It’s indescribable.”

Shar-Ron Buie, the community liaison for EPP, connects with various community organizations to provide resources and build connections with students.

“At first they were afraid to speak to me. They were afraid to talk to me, But by the end of the semester, we’re hugging each other, and that’s the same thing that happens with our students here when the new cohort begins,” Buie says.

McCloud and Christal Roman, another formerly incarcerated EPP student, took the creative writing class together.

“I’m learning that poetry doesn’t necessarily have to rhyme. It just can kind of blend in,” Roman says. “It’s very interesting and I like it because, with the lived experiences that we have from different backgrounds and our cultures, we’re able to get to know each other by how we express ourselves in our writing. And also, it’s really therapeutic.”

The course is taught by Angela Sorby, an English professor at Marquette, who inspires students through creative writing. Sorby says she decided to teach incarcerated individuals because she felt like it was a waste to have such highly intelligent and dedicated people facing countless barriers to reintegration.

“This can sound really bleeding heart, but it wasn’t just because I felt sorry for them, but because it struck me as being so silly,” she says. “It’s as if the worst thing that they ever did in their life then comes to define them forever. I think none of us would want our worst moment to be the thing that was our sole social identity.” 

While she understands many of these incarcerated individuals had committed grievous offenses in the past, Sorby says most had committed these offenses when they were 18, 19 or 20 years old, and are much older now.

Roman was convicted in 2001 and served nine years of confinement and 10 years of extended supervision. She was released from the district court in 2010. However, more than 10 years after her release from prison, Roman says she still struggles to find her place in the education system. 

“I still face the challenges and barriers as if it was yesterday,” Roman says. “It’s just hard to navigate life like a person who is truly free.”  

After receiving her realtor certification from MATC, Roman discovered that she could not get licensed because of her record. Roman says she also had to petition to receive an education and a paralegal diploma while incarcerated. 

“I was reading some theory about incarcerated people and the theory used the term ‘social death’ to describe what people go through in prison … They are taken away from society and their personhood is kind of taken away,” Sorby says. “I felt like teaching poetry enabled them to explore and express other sides.”

In their final project for the class, students wrote about a variety of topics, from rescuing animals to arts and crafts.

Sorby says it was inspiring to see how both formerly incarcerated and traditional Marquette students connected.

“I was really proud at how surprised the audience was at the quality of the poetry,” Sorby says. “This was not amateurish poetry. This was powerful stuff and tears were shed and I think we were all quite happy and proud of ourselves at what we were able to accomplish.”

Catherine Lehmkuhl, a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences, says she signed up for the EPP because she was interested in different areas of social work and social justice.

“I say that I went in with an open mind, but yeah, everyone has their prejudices and perceptions, of course,” Lehmkuhl says. “I would say my perceptions of a person in a correctional setting were definitely like what I had seen in movies. I’ve never been inside of a correctional institution like this one.”

Lehmkuhl says the collaborative learning environment helped them see each individual as a whole person.

“We got to hear some of their really heartbreaking experiences,” Lehmkuhl says. “And the complexity of those people … it’s not just that they either feel shame … or feel hopeless, but they really had a passion for learning and improving themselves.”

Buie says while there is a broad spectrum of experiences, the one experience these formerly incarcerated students have is that there is some legal impact.

“It’s just overwhelming to see the metamorphosis that happens from the beginning, to the middle and to the end. And as we bring in the other members of the team, each member of the team delivers a unique perspective … It’s just so rewarding,” Buie says.

This story was written by Skyler Chun. She can be reached at [email protected]