Although he received a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1969, Stephen Richards' education was interrupted by the lure of marijuana -- and a government sting operation.
Instead of a college degree, Richards got a federal prison sentence.
Nearly 20 years after his release, Richards is back in the classroom -- and back in prisons.
Now a tenured professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Richards leads a national movement of some three dozen ex-convicts with advanced degrees. Through their writing and research, they advocate for change in the criminal justice system. Richards also works in Wisconsin prisons, hoping to convince a new generation of felons that education can save them, the way it saved him.
Richards, 55, grew up in a Milwaukee orphanage. The value of education became obvious as he watched the other kids in the orphanage turn 18 and go into the world with $5 and a cardboard suitcase. Their choices were to study hard enough to get the college scholarship, or hit the streets.
At Madison, Richards studied sociology. He said he sat in the aisles of the bookstore reading his assignments because he couldn't afford the books and sweet-talked girls out of their leftovers in the cafeteria because he didn't have the money for meals.
Some of the other orphans crashed permanently at Richards' off-campus apartment. They opened his eyes to how profitable it could be to sell marijuana in Madison in 1969, and he became a very successful dealer. Richards left school his senior year, choosing instead to travel and operate a jewelry business with his sister. In 1982, an old friend from his dealing days called from South Carolina and asked to borrow some money, Richards said. He agreed. According to court records, Richards showed up in Charleston with $180,000.
Richards learned later that he'd been caught up in a fake drug deal created by government agents. A jury convicted him of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana.
9 Years, Nine Federal Prisons
In 1984, Richards began serving a nine-year sentence. By the time he was released on parole three years later, he had been housed in nine federal prisons.
"I saw suicides and knifings and beatings and (corrections officers in) gun towers shooting people," Richards said. "Psychologically, it's difficult . . . .But that's what happens when you take away hope."
Richards saw himself start to change, too. One day, after he had been incarcerated more than two years, he bashed another man over the head with a metal folding chair for cutting in the cafeteria line.
"You become somebody else," he said. "You have to, to survive."
But Richards never stopped believing in the power of knowledge. He finished his bachelor's degree through correspondence while in prison. Upon release, he earned his master's at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and his PhD. at Iowa State University. Richards was working as an assistant professor at Northern Kentucky University when he got a letter from an inmate named Daniel Murphy, who was serving five years for manufacture of marijuana.
A childhood back injury nagged Murphy through high school and ended his college basketball career after a semester. The pain almost drove him to suicide in 1980, when he says he discovered relief from marijuana. He earned his degree and started a consulting business. When his dealer gave up selling pot in 1992, Murphy says he decided to grow his own. Federal agents discovered his crop the day after he planted it.
While incarcerated in federal prison, Murphy was stabbed three times.
He has just one way to describe the time he spent locked up: insanity.
Education Brings Change
As Murphy prepared to leave prison, he was determined to change the conditions for prisoners who came after him. The best way to do that, he decided, was to further his education. He was introduced to Richards through a contact at UWM, and Richards mentored Murphy through his master's degree and Ph.D. Murphy, 50, is now an assistant professor of criminal justice at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.
Richards and Murphy are among about three dozen professors and graduate students around the country known as convict criminologists. Rather than hiding their criminal pasts, they use them to inform their classes and their writing.
Like Murphy, some of them are advocates for prison reform. Some inspire students to make a difference through working for non-profit organizations, as defense attorneys or as corrections officers dedicated to rehabilitation.
"We know things about the criminal justice system and about the prison system that they don't teach in college, but need to be taught," Richards said. "One of them is how to get through it in one piece and be a better person."
Assigned reading for Richards' class at Oshkosh includes "Behind Bars," a book about prison life he wrote with a former corrections officer, and "Convict Criminology," which includes essays he, Murphy and other educated ex-cons wrote about their pasts.
"He tells you stories about when he was in the federal prison system, and he tells you the truths and exploits the lies that the books have told us," said Oshkosh senior Jenny Kohls.
Senior Sean Kuether agreed.
"I think one of the biggest lessons from Dr. Richards . . . is that many criminals or convicted offenders are regular people, who for one reason or another made decisions that resulted in their incarceration," he said. "This doesn't necessarily mean they are horrible people or that they should be shunned by the community."
Financial Aid For Felons
There aren't many options for prisoners who want to pursue higher education. The Wisconsin prison system began to offer college courses via satellite earlier this year, according to spokesman John Dipko. The classes, funded by a federal grant and taught in cooperation with Milwaukee Area Technical College, cost $30 each. Some prisoners also take courses by mail. Costs range from about $200 to $700.
Prisoners aren't eligible for federal student loans or grants. But once they get out, most felons can apply for federal financial aid. They usually get it because they have poverty-level incomes, Richards said.
Richards came to UW-Oshkosh in 2004. Earlier that year, Oshkosh criminal justice professor Christopher Rose had started a program at the Racine Correctional Institution to encourage inmates to apply to college when they got out. Richards was a natural addition to the program and helped expand it to the Oshkosh Correctional Institution, located just a few miles from the university.
Oshkosh students teach the class. Although the prisoners don't get college credit, they read the same "Convict Criminology" text as their university counterparts. They take tests, write papers and give oral presentations. The curriculum is designed to show prisoners whether they have what it takes to succeed at a university.
Each semester, Richards makes a guest appearance and tells his story.
"You have paid in full," he told a group recently. "When you get out, you, like every other resident of the state, are welcome to attend a university."
At the end of the course, the student teachers and UW professors help the inmates fill out college applications and financial aid forms.
"I know I want to pursue an education, that's real important," said Oxford inmate Aarus Mister, 27, who is taking the class. "I see education as real important for an ex-offender in terms of not coming back (to prison)."
So far, 60 Wisconsin inmates have taken the course. Richards knows of three who have gone on to college. One of them is Richard Hendricksen, 24, of New Lisbon.
Hendricksen was raised to join the military and marry the girl he took to senior prom, except his life didn't work out that way. He was discharged from the Army when an old foot injury made it impossible for him to continue. His prom date dumped him. His brother was killed in a motorcycle accident, and his father died of leukemia.
"Me and some friends got a place and started partying," he said.
Five years ago, the group got high on Oxycontin and robbed a man. Hendricksen pleaded guilty to robbery with use of force and recklessly endangering safety. He was sentenced to two years in prison.
"I had never really thought about going to college," he said. "No one in my family had ever done it before."
Things changed when he met Richards, who assured him that he could attend college and promised to help.
"It was a whole world they opened the door to," he said.
When Hendricksen was released in May 2005, he says he couldn't get into a university because his high school grades had been so bad. So he took two courses at Western Wisconsin Technical College, earning a 4.0.
A few weeks ago, Hendricksen was accepted at UW-Oshkosh for the spring semester.
"My mom started crying, and I started a little bit," he said.
Although Hendricksen and Murphy are among a select few who have made it from prison to college, Richards says they are enough.
"I think it's worthwhile just to give them the bridge. That step. If they're able to cross the bridge and enter college, that's great," he said. "How many people get over the bridge, that's up to them."
Contact Gina Barton at firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2005, Journal Sentinel Inc. All rights reserved.
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