Vanessa Thompson didn’t have the best start in life. Abused from an early age, she was just 13 when she quit school and entered the foster care system. A habit of running away and doing drugs carried her into her early 20s, and her activities ultimately led to murder charges stemming from the death of a drug dealer. While Thompson proclaimed she was innocent, the judicial system disagreed.
Thompson did not take well to prison at first. She was disruptive, self-harming, and sold drugs in jail – but deep down she was not the person she appeared to be. With a drive to settle down and better herself, and to become a better mother for her two children, she took advantage of the prison’s education system. She particularly liked the public policy course, and in the end, it was this education and this course that enabled her to radically change her life, and the lives of many other people.
Thompson was housed in the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis, a city where an estimated 18,000 buildings have been completely abandoned. Between 2014 and 2017, only 17 of the derelict homes were demolished by the city, which didn’t make much difference in fixing problems inherent in these buildings. Abandoned buildings attract drug activity, prostitution and squatters, lower the value and safety of neighborhoods, and are complete eyesores. City officials and residents struggle to come up with viable solutions to the issue.
In 2015, Thompson was 17 years into her sentence and had turned from a wild child to a confident and educated woman. She watched a mayoral candidate on television talk about Indianapolis’s abandoned homes, and something in her mind clicked.
During her long sentence, Thompson had seen how a lack of jobs and housing for ex-cons led many former inmates right back to jail. But what if inmates, upon their release, helped to rebuild these derelict homes? And what if, after they put in a set amount of work time, they got to live in one of the homes as well? Her solution would create both jobs and housing for released inmates, while directly attacking the out-of-control abandoned housing issue in the city.
“It’s a double restoration — not just of the house but of the person,” Thompson, said in an interview. “What does Indianapolis need? A solution to this housing crisis. What do women in prison need, more than anything? Ownership. Of our minds, of our bodies, and of our physical homes.”
Excited by the idea, Thompson wrote a proposal and took it to the women in the public policy class. Her idea immediately gained traction. Next came video chats with organizations that could help bring the idea to reality, including Habitat for Humanity, YouthBuild, Yale Law School and local development corporations.
In April 2017, the women brought their proposal, via videotape, to the slate legislature. It was unanimously approved.
Constructing Our Future is a prime example of what happens when proper prison education programs are in place. When Thompson was in the streets doing drugs and committing crimes, she didn’t have any confidence in herself. When she went to jail, she believed lashing out was her only option. When she enrolled in higher education, however, she discovered her strength, power and voice. With that, she created a solution to a problem that affects thousands of people, and built a program that will directly impact and improve the lives of inmates and the residents of her community.
Prison education is important both for those that will be released and for those that will not. The difference prison education makes saves lives, creates hope and improves humanity.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.