When working in inmate education, the moment one waits for is the “light bulb moment,” when the inmates' eyes light up when they finally GET IT. When they actually read and understand what the U.S. War of Independence, or the Civil War, was all about, or how close the world came to falling under Nazi domination in World War II, or that there is a bigger world beyond their experience waiting for them.
Robert Vick is one of those inmates who come to mind when I think of the “light bulb moment.” A short, muscular, black inmate, Robert attended the Sage Colleges inmate education program at Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility, on whose lands President Grant’s cottage, where he penned his memoirs and passed away, sits.
Robert was taking classes in composition, science, and African history. His academic skills were weak, but he was a strong reader. We spent time discussing history, the news, and Islam, which had recently become a new interest. He was polite, soft-spoken, respectful, and seemed to be well-liked by the other inmates. Robert, who was in a minimum-security work camp, spoke anxiously of going home on furlough — a rare privilege.
One afternoon, as the inmates slowly shuffled into class, Luis, one of the students, unceremoniously dumped a collection of textbooks on my desk.
“Here,” Luis declared.
“What are these?” I asked.
Luis, a skinny young man of few words, offered “Vick’s books.”
“Where is he?”
I was stunned. Nearly speechless, I was barely able to stammer out, “Wha . . . what happened?”
“Justice,” Luis spat out. It was the great karmic vulture that circled over everyone in the joint.
According to the New York State Department of Corrections, on September 7, 1993, Robert Vick, a minimum-security inmate, was reported deceased. Vick, who was doing time on a manslaughter charge, was said to have been murdered — perhaps in payment for his past crimes. I do not know what Robert did or the victim he buried. I only knew him as an earnest young man trying to leave his past behind him and become a better person.
As I drove home later that day, a flock of geese flying south in a V formation followed my car for a short time before veering off — very much in the same way Robert’s life followed mine for a short time before veering off. I wondered if this was his way of saying goodbye.
The hard fact of life learned in prison is that good intentions count for little. Those whose lives carry the momentum of a lifetime of bad decisions are like the Titanic racing towards an iceberg, going too fast to change course even though you see the danger looming right before you. No matter what you do, your ship keeps heading towards the iceberg. That was my “light bulb moment.”
I still think about Robert Vick and how his death sums up the great human tragedy of the cycle of poverty, crime, and incarceration (see “Ode to an Inmate”). Sometimes, as sociologist Jay MacLeod asserts in the title of his classic study of inner-city youth aspirations, there just Ain’t No Makin’ It.
One of Robert’s textbooks, Introduction to African Civilizations, by John G. Jackson, still sits on my bookshelf some twenty years after his death. Whenever I pick it up, I wonder what he was thinking as I read the same words he once read, holding the same pages he once held, and feeling the same sun on my back that once burned the skin of our ancestors on the dusty plains of ancient Africa so very long ago.