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7 Famous Inmates Who Completed a Degree from Prison

November 17th, 2010

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If you're arrested and found guilty of a crime, you might think that a prison sentence is the end of your life, or at least your goals of succeeding in society. But as these famous inmates have proved, getting an education in prison is possible, and can even lead to a career — outside of jail or as a respected tutor, consultant or legal assistant within the prison system. In fact, having access to a college education may even be your right, depending on your crime, prison sentence and detainment facility. Not that we want you to face such a disruption in your path to success, but if you feel unmotivated or like you've failed by dropping out, making a bad grade or even getting kicked out of class, let these inmates serve as your inspiration for making things right.

  1. Nelson Mandela: Former South African president Nelson Mandela has a Nobel Peace Prize and inspired a United Nations-supported annual international day — July 18 is Mandela Day — but also infamously spent twenty-seven years in prison after leading a violent anti-apartheid campaign in the 1960s and allying himself with the African National Congress. Although he's now a high-profile humanitarian hero, the U.S. actually helped imprison Mandela for his terrorist acts. Mandela lived in a prison on Robben Island for eighteen years, where he was only allowed one visitor and one letter every six months. He later finished his sentence at Pollsmoor Prison after becoming too influential with the younger prisoners at Robben Island. But besides expanding his political agenda, Mandela also cooperated with the University of London while in prison, and completed a Bachelor of Laws through the school's External Programme, and in 1981 received a nomination for Chancellor of the University of London. Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990, and became president of South Africa in 1994.
  2. Jerry Rosenberg: Though sentenced to death for a double murder involving New York City police officers, Jerry Rosenberg died of natural causes in 2009, at the Wende Correctional Facility. Rosenberg served for forty-six years, which was the longest term of any prisoner in state history, but for the last few years, Rosenberg also served as a paralegal assistant in the prison law library. Soon after his incarceration, Rosenberg became the first inmate in New York to earn a law degree, which he did with help from the Allentown, PA-based Blackstone Career Institute School of Law. He consulted for other inmates, and even gave legal advice to certain prisoners involved in the Attica Prison riot. After being transferred to Sing Sing and the Wende Correctional Facility, Rosenberg used his education to help his fellow inmates and work in the law library, becoming the most famous jailhouse lawyer, and even inspiring a book and made-for-TV movie, starring Tony Danza.
  3. William Heirens: Notoriously called The Lipstick Killer, William Heirens has already spent over 60 years in prison, the longest of any inmate in the U.S. A serial killer who actually confessed to three murders, Heirens spent time at school for troubled boys but was such an exemplary student that he was admitted to the University of Chicago. But after lots of press attention over the cases of several mysterious murders in 1945 and 1946, Heirens confessed to three killings, and subsequently tried to hang himself in his cell. Since then, he has served in various prisons around Illinois. In 1972, Heirens completed a Bachelor of Arts degree and for a time even ran his own repair shop from prison. Another jailhouse lawyer, Heirens helps other prisoners earn their GEDs and to organize their own cases.
  4. B. Kwaku Duren: Black Panther and activist B. Kwaku Duren has demonstrated pretty ambitious political goals: he even ran for Vice President under Lenora Fulani's Independent ticket in 1988. When he was just 16, Duren was arrested for armed robbery but became a jailhouse lawyer and was able to negotiate his release, based on a technicality. He was later arrested again for armed robbery, and during his term, studied the works of Erich Fromm, W.E.B. Dubois, Lenin, and Karl Marx. Duren took classes from San Francisco State University while he was in jail, and when he was released, took law school classes on and off until finally graduating in 1989, and passing the bar that same year.
  5. Pamela Smart: Pamela Smart's case garnered rabid media attention in 1990 after she collaborated with a 15-year-old boyfriend and his friends to kill her husband. Smart and her husband had only been married for a few months before Smart began a relationship with a student — Billy Flynn — at the high school where she worked as a volunteer for a drug awareness program. In August of 1990, Smart's husband was found murdered, and an investigation quickly resulted in the arrest of Smart. In March 1991, she was found guilty for seducing Billy Flynn and threatening him and his friends to murder her husband so that she could collect an insurance policy. Currently serving a life sentence, Smart has never confessed to any participation in the murder, and has actually earned two masters degrees in literature and legal studies. The degrees were funded by New York-based Mercy College, and Smart also tutors other inmates and is allowed to keep in her cell a typewriter, numerous books, and and a radio.
  6. Carlos Rosado: Carlos Rosado was recently released from Woodbourne Correctional Facility in New York, after serving 12 years for armed robbery, and also after earning a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Bard College. Rosado studied for six years to complete his degree as part of the competitive Bard Prison Initiative, which only accepts 15 new students per year at each participating facility. Rosado helped recruit 30 inmates to maintain a garden on the prison premises, and the project also served as inspiration for his senior thesis, called "The Diet of Punishment: Prison Food and Penal Practice in the Post-Rehabilitative Era."
  7. Shon Hopwood: Although Shon Hopwood was sentenced to 13 years in prison after committing five robberies, he took a serious interest in his education after incarceration. Hopwood was released in 2008, but even three years before, he was working on Supreme Court petitions and won a PEN American Center writing contest in 2008. That same year, Hopwood prepared a U.S. Supreme Court petition for certiorari for the notable Fellers v. United States case, which resulted in a positive holding for the defendant.

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