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  • 2020-09-24
  • Meghan Finnerty

Prison to Promise: How Higher Education Transformed a Life

Two-time Brockport alum and former faculty member Craig Waleed released his book, “Prison to Promise: A Chronicle of Healing and Transformation.” Hear an excerpt in the video above.

Craig Waleed '05/'10 spent seven years and 10 months in New York State prisons. He kept a book in his hand and learning on his mind.

It was in prison where he recalls starting to destroy the myths he once believed of what a Black man should be like. Myths that perpetuated behaviors and actions that landed him in that cell. Through reading books on Black leaders and African history, he would change his perception of what it means to be a Black man.

“I can create, build, and be intellectual,” Waleed said.

He entered prison as Craig Marshall, but after his release in 1997, he changed his name to Craig Waleed — meaning "reborn." Since his release, Waleed married, had two sons, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from SUNY Brockport, and eventually achieved a Doctorate of Education. Then this August, he released his first book, “Prison to Promise: A Chronicle of Healing and Transformation.”

Barely one month since the book release, Waleed welled up with tears when reflecting on it. He shared that copies were already being sent to prison libraries and that one inmate shared his copy with 12 others.

Associate Professor of English Althea Tait even incorporated the book into one of her courses, Introduction to African-American Literature. “Dr. Waleed's text offers an untainted perspective of the systemic issues of racism in our nation and region; most importantly, it provides a vignette of hope,” Tait said. “As we continue to process the lost lives of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and now Daniel Prude, reading texts such as Dr. Waleed's “Prison to Promise: A Chronicle of Healing and Transformation” is good and essential work, to paraphrase Congressman John Lewis, for our students to engage in.”

“It’s my story, but it’s not about me,” Waleed said. “It’s a torch to light someone else's dark path, to inform people that you can change your life. And this is how I changed my life, through the pursuit of higher education and developing viable relationships.”

Life as Craig Marshall 

Waleed grew up in what he calls a “strait-laced” family. He was raised by his sister, aunt, and mother with two older brothers. But he recalls showing signs of violent behavior at five or six years old. By his teenage years, he had experienced a series of arrests from assaults, to thefts, to breaking and entering.

“I was angry,” he said.

Waleed says his behavior was a cry for help or a result of adverse childhood traumas. “[I was] surrounded by good people but without guidance. I was left to my own devices,” he said. He witnessed crime, drugs, sex, and violence from a young age, and he later took part in all of it. That’s what a Black man was supposed to be doing, so he thought.

“I think those myths are what led me to prison,” he said.

When Waleed was 18 years old, he found himself lonely and bored one night. Looking for something to do, he went out to get drugs and found the company of two strangers. They started to party together, but the night went south. A disagreement turned violent. That's when a knife was presented by one of the others. He remembers thinking, it’s them or me, and stabbed them both multiple times.

Waleed was charged with assault in the first degree and attempted murder in the second degree. He was sentenced to 4-12 years in prison.

Incarceration became a place of education for Waleed. He filled his time by reading. His cell became his classroom, and his teachers were older prisoners. At first, he picked up “street novels” until the librarian called him out. “Telling me, ‘You need to read something different. Educate your mind. Learn about your people, learn about yourself,’” he recalled.

More men in the facilities started to challenge him in the same way, instructing him, “‘Read this, write me a report on that,’” he said. “I think that’s the first time I had real mentorship.”

Waleed eventually enrolled in college, earning an associate's degree through the Consortium of the Niagara Frontier. The intellectual might of his professors was of those he was reading about. “[They were] like a bright light, and I was a mosquito drawn to it,” he said. “Those professors I really think helped change my perception of my potential.”

Post-Prison

In 1997, Waleed was released. He moved back in with his sister and started to look for work right away. He didn't want to recidivate.

According to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “an estimated 68 percent of released prisoners were arrested within 3 years, 79 percent within 6 years, and 83 percent within 9 years.”

Waleed worked temp jobs for some time, but the tasks were too mundane, he said. Feeling as though he needed a job with more intellectual stimulation, he landed a position with Monroe Community Hospital and later at Camp Good Days and Special Times. 

But he wanted to go back to school.

In 1999, Waleed applied to SUNY Brockport. He remembers meeting with Admissions Advisor Michael Brown. “[I told him] I want to go to college; it will save my life,” he said.

“I do remember him distinctly,” said Brown. “He was fully committed to going in a different direction. He got to a point where he knew he wanted better for himself and could do better.”

“I’m sure I'm institutionalized,” Waleed said. This time, he chose to belong to “the institution of higher education, or as I like to call it, the temples of higher education,” he said. “To me, the professors were like priests.”

Waleed was accepted and began to study health science and substance abuse counseling. He commuted from Camp Good Days in Pittsford to Brockport for class. Being at Brockport was “an oasis of sorts, a heavenly place,” he said.

In an unlikely turn of events, Waleed took an undergraduate internship at the same counseling facility he had been mandated to go to after his release. He said the counsel he received there was poor. “I told myself I can do a better job,” he said.

Fast forward to his internship, he occupied the same office he had once sat in as a patient. “It was mind boggling,” Waleed said.

Waleed continued at Brockport to earn a Master of Science in Mental Health Counseling. “School was something that helped me stay focused and something that I loved to do. I wanted to be an example, not only for formerly incarcerated people, but for people who think once you’ve been to prison your humanity is lost, your citizenship is lost,” he said.

Waleed went on to earn a fourth degree, a Doctorate of Education from St. John Fisher College. And he would start working in the “temples of higher education” as a faculty member (or “priest”) in the Department of Counselor Education at Brockport. “My gospel is of reclaiming one’s life to empower self, family, and community,” he said.

Brown and Waleed have stayed in touch over the years. Brown said, “I’m not surprised at all [by] what he’s achieved.”

His story is powerful.

“I’ve told him, you’re at the minimum a good book, if not a movie.”

“Prison to Promise: A Chronicle of Healing and Transformation” is available on Amazon and in the Barnes and Noble Bookstore on campus.

Craig Waleed

Last Updated 5/26/21

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