From Cellblock to Campus, One Black Man Defies the Data
Walter Fortson never expected to finish college, especially as inmate 819161D at the Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility, in Hunterdon County, N.J. A few years ago, he chose to be a crack dealer to support his family and his reckless spending habits. He thought he was too smart to get caught, until one day in 2008 when he made a bad move.
He was a 25-year-old black male driving through an Atlantic City public-housing project in an expensive red Chevrolet Suburban with gleaming chrome hubcaps and out-of-state tags. Thinking he looked suspicious, police officers pulled him over and found crack cocaine, marijuana, and two handguns in the SUV. One officer pointed a gun at his head, he recalls, while the other handcuffed him and said, “You know that your life is over, huh?”
Mr. Fortson believed him. “To be a black male convicted felon, I thought my life was over,” he says.
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Today, though, Mr. Fortson is an honor student in his senior year at Rutgers University at New Brunswick. While serving part of a six-year sentence for drugs and weapons offenses, he met a Rutgers historian who tutors inmates and runs a re-entry program that helps felons go from prison to college. That associate professor, Donald Roden, helped him through the admissions process after he was released early from prison.
Mr. Fortson is a rarity in higher education, for reasons that have to do with race, economics, expectations, and criminal-justice practices. As one of many young black men with a criminal history, he has been given a second chance. He is an exception to a rule which seems to dictate that punishment for a crime does not end when a felon leaves prison. A criminal conviction often creates barriers to voting, employment, and housing, and forecloses opportunities to attend college.
By enrolling in a four-year college, Mr. Fortson is also defying higher education’s gender gap, which touches all races and ethnic groups but is widest among black students. Black women earn almost twice as many degrees—at every level—as black men.