‘Making turn’: from inmate to scholar

It is 4 p.m., and Darryl Epps has just put in a full day at work. Yet his day is only half over.

Meticulously groomed with a pencil-thin mustache and goatee, smart suit and silver tie pin, the 41-year-old Epps leaves the Fortune Society in Harlem, where he connects people who are formerly incarcerated with housing and other services. He drives two hours home to Staten Island, listening to Christian contemporary music along the way. At night, he attends classes at the College of Staten Island with his 19-year-old son or studies until midnight. The next day, he’s up at 5 a.m. to do it all again.

The days are long, but that’s how he’ll achieve his goals of earning a master’s degree and starting a social services practice.

“Every day … I think about where I’m at now,” Epps says. “Ten years ago … I didn’t know if I would ever get out of prison. I didn’t know there would be a place for me in society.”

Micah Cormier and Jason Koski/Cornell University

Darryl Epps is one of hundreds of men incarcerated in New York who have transformed themselves, their families and communities through the Cornell Prison Education Program, which brings college education behind bars.

Epps grew up in the “hyperviolent” housing projects of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, where he and his younger brother Darnell endured a tough public school and their parents’ eventual divorce. Darnell dropped out of school in 10th grade. Darryl bounced in and out of juvenile detention. “It was a lifestyle I didn’t want,” Darryl says, “but I felt it was the only one that was open to me.”

“The poorest decision I ever made” is how he describes what happened March 8, 2000. Darnell recounted it in a New York Times op-ed: “I accompanied Darryl to an encounter with a gang member who, days earlier, had sexually assaulted Darryl’s wife. We were both armed. Rather than report the assault, we set out for a confrontation. Within seconds, the situation escalated and Darryl fired several shots in a struggle for the gun, wounding the gang member and himself. Darryl and I survived. The gang member did not.”

“Every day … I think about where I’m at now. Ten years ago … I didn’t know if I would ever get out of prison. I didn’t know there would be a place for me in society.”

Darryl Epps

They were sentenced to 17½ years to life. Darnell was 20; Darryl was 21, and his son was 5 months old. The brothers were taken to Five Points Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Romulus, in central New York. “I was filled with a lot of shame, a lot of guilt, a lot of remorse and regret,” Darryl says.

Sixteen years later, they applied to the Cornell Prison Education Program, which gives incarcerated men the chance to earn an associate degree from Cayuga Community College, part of the State University of New York; qualified students are selected to pursue a Certificate in Liberal Arts from Cornell. The Ivy League’s largest prison education program, CPEP has educated more than 675 men incarcerated in New York prisons.

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