Prepared to help others: Sandra Brown emerged from prison with multiple degrees and a mission
Sandra Brown believes in self-improvement and helping others to improve their own lives. For Brown, earning a bachelor’s degree in specialized studies through Ohio University’s print-based correspondence program was an important first step in bettering herself while serving a 20-year prison sentence for the 2000 fatal shooting of a woman during a fight.
Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Brown was an aspiring teacher and mother to a young son when she entered the prison system over 20 years ago. After being sentenced, Brown immediately began to think about and explore opportunities for self-improvement as she looked ahead to a future beyond the prison walls.
“I was sentenced to 22 years inside the Illinois Department of Corrections,” Brown said. “It was a pretty lengthy sentence. And so, I was thinking, OK, how do I turn my life around? What types of opportunities are here? What does life past incarceration look like? I would hear all these great testimonials about college and how education changes people.”
Brown has always loved learning and school, so it was only natural that she sought educational opportunities to make the most of her time and find ways to turn her life around while incarcerated.
“I've always loved school. Even as a little girl my favorite thing to play with was school,” Brown said. “We know that education opens up economic opportunities, so I wanted to partake in educational programming.”
The path to college was not an easy one for Brown. Though she knew she wanted to use her time in prison to improve herself, it took Brown a while to make it past the long waiting lists and find a program that would allow her to earn her bachelor’s degree while incarcerated. She said the waitlist policies in correctional facilities, which favor those with shorter sentences, can keep people with long sentences out of educational programming. While she waited for her turn, she served as a teaching assistant, helping others enrolled in educational programs until she was able to enroll in her own bachelor’s degree.
The crime bill passed in 1994 made incarcerated students ineligible for Pell Grants which had long helped provide access to education in the correction system. As a result, the number of educational programs in prisons dwindled dramatically.
“We know the ending of Pell Grant funding is what stopped a lot of higher education programs in prisons,” Brown said.
Waiting lists were not the only obstacle Brown encountered. With Pell Grants unavailable, finding the money to pay for her education was also a challenge.
“I worked as a teaching assistant and made $30 a month, so you can understand why it took me almost seven years to earn a four-year degree,” Brown said.
Brown was able to gradually pay for her education using the wages she earned in prison as well as scholarships, including the Richard R. Brackin Scholarship from Ohio University.
“It took me a long time to find a school that would even accept me as a student,” Brown said. “Ohio University opened its doors to me, and I will forever have a place in my heart for OHIO.”
Despite the barriers she encountered, Brown was the first incarcerated woman in Illinois to earn a master’s degree and gain acceptance into an academic doctoral program.
Brown had little access to technology. She completed most of her coursework on a typewriter. Access to textbooks and research materials was also a challenge, but she had a supportive proctor who helped connect her with resources whenever possible. Brown worked during the day, so she rose early to work on her classes.
“All of my learning happened at 4:30 in the morning in my bunk in a dorm with 19 other women,” Brown said. “It taught me discipline.”
Even though she never got to interact with her professors and advisors in person, or even see their faces, Brown remembers and appreciates the OHIO faculty and staff who helped her in her quest for education. Alden Waitt, who taught in Women’s Studies, helped guide Brown through the application process. Once in her coursework, Brown particularly enjoyed her literature classes with Dr. Ernest Johansson, who taught in the English Department for 37 years. Dr. Char Rae and Laura Munsell Clapp, both now retired from University College, served as advisors to Brown as she navigated her OHIO degree via correspondence.
With Rae’s help, Brown was able to earn internship credit for her work as an editor for a newspaper at one of the facilities where she was incarcerated.
“I graduated with the desire to actually go further,” Brown said. “I wanted to do more and because of the programming at Ohio University, I was able to go on to California State University and earn my master’s degree.”
In 2018 Brown was accepted into a doctoral program in organizational leadership at California Coast University.
Starting a new chapter
After Brown transferred to Fox Valley Adult Transition Center in Aurora, Illinois, she began to work with the Women's Justice Institute as a visiting scholar.
“I did research primarily on higher education programs in prison and that work resulted in me being able to write a policy paper that recommends ways to support justice-impacted women who are pursuing a college education. Education should be accessible to all,” Brown said.
When Brown was released from the Fox Valley Adult Transitional Center this spring, she moved to Los Angeles, California, looking for a fresh start. And she’s not stopping in her pursuit of education as she continues to work on her doctoral degree.
Brown believes in the transformative power of programs like Ohio University’s Print-based Correspondence Program and hopes to help other incarcerated students empower themselves through education. She serves as a senior advisor and writer in residence for Women’s Justice Institute, advocating for increased access to educational opportunities for incarcerated women.
Her memoir, “Odyssey in Progress,” was published this summer. It presents her lived experience through poems, many of which she wrote while working on her bachelor’s degree from OHIO. Brown said her collected poems focus not only on her personal experiences but also on the larger topic of social change.
“It’s really a story of resilience in overcoming,” Brown said. “It's basically the story of my life, my challenges, my triumphs. There are a lot of different types of poetry, all of which I learned by taking literature courses and humanities courses at Ohio University. Rather than use narrative, I chose to use poetry because even as a teenager, poetry was how I was able to mentally escape what was going on around me.”
Brown plans to continue sharing her experience and her story through writing.
“I want to say my memoir is the first of many books,” Brown said. “I'm working on one now documenting what navigating life after incarceration is like.”
Brown wants to be a supportive presence for her son who was 8 years old when she entered prison. She also hopes to serve as an example of perseverance for her four granddaughters as they reach for their dreams.
“I still have the typewriter that I used to turn my assignments in and I want to show them that, hey, your grandmother…this is who you come from. So, you have what it takes to endure or to achieve anything that you want to achieve,” Brown said.
Accessing higher education while incarcerated was not an easy proposition for Brown, but she encourages other incarcerated individuals to pursue their educational goals.
“It's not easy. There will be times that you will have to hold on as if your life depended on it, to the very reason you want to do it in the first place, but you are worth the investment,” Brown said. “The return is not only going to come to you, but it's going to come to your family, your friends, and your community. There's a reason and a purpose behind what you were doing. Don't give up.”
As she looks ahead to her future as a scholar, writer, and activist, Brown hopes to make a difference for others whose journeys have involved incarceration. She wants to work on bringing more educational programs into prisons.
“That's where the change began for me,” she said. “My Ohio University experience has prepared me to impact many lives. I'd like to work to make transitioning to campus a little easier for justice-impacted students.”
Brown is grateful to Ohio University for providing her access to a correspondence-based bachelor’s degree and for continuing to provide that option to incarcerated students at a time when other institutions have phased out such programs.
“I am just so grateful that Ohio University’s print-based option is still open. I don't know what part of my life has not been impacted by my years at Ohio University,” Brown said. “I'm always recommending Ohio University to women who may have questions or want to go after a degree.”