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Member Graduates with Honors 31 Years After Incarceration

Eddie Fordham understands the value of education because he has had to fight for it. Having been incarcerated in a state prison for 31 years, two months, and eight days, Fordham’s access to education was denied for years by the 1994 Crime Bill, despite evidence from a RAND Corporation study indicating that those who enroll in college while incarcerated are 43 percent less likely to recidivate.

With his own determination and the support of others, Fordham succeeded in bringing college courses into prisons, and the Second Chance Pell Grant provided funding and the opportunity he had been seeking.

Fordham worked diligently on his education, and a year after his release, he graduated with a 4.0 GPA, recognition as a Dean’s List scholar, and Miami Dade College’s Academic Achievement award, making Fordham the first justice-impacted student to receive the award in the college’s 48-year history.

The Skills That Create Change

To advocate for his education while incarcerated, Fordham needed strong written and communication skills. He had to persuade prison administrators to consider change, and have them see the importance of education for one's rehabilitation.

“I had to convince them that my 'life sentence' was not the end game for me and others. We needed education to give us a sense of purpose and meaning.”

The hard work didn’t end there. Having gained permission to enroll in college, Fordham needed strong organizational skills and dedication to work his full-time prison job and responsibilities while attending classes and studying.

“To this day, I still don't know how I managed to do it all. I guess I just wanted my education that much!”

So many success stories point directly back to one's education, and graduating from college today is still a great way to create long-term financial security. The same goes for those incarcerated, and Fordham is a great example of leaning on education to build a better life.


Choose Your Friends Wisely

Another factor in Fordham’s success is his willingness to accept responsibility and to build a network that will support him rather than encourage bad decisions.

When he was first incarcerated, the 18-year-old Fordham received a letter from a local judge, William White, Jr. “In it, he told me he was proud of the way I was accepting accountability for my poor decisions, and that I could use my experience to tell other youth the truth about the consequences of crime and false friends.”

Fordham was inspired by both White’s letter and the words of Victor Frankl: “When you can no longer change a situation, the only thing left to change is yourself.” He chose to change his attitude toward his incarceration, choosing to be a better person and to be a leader.

Fordham uses the message “Choose Your Friends Wisely" when speaking to youth and teens, a message that has now reached thousands of kids and steered them away from trouble.

Among the friends that Fordham now chooses are his NSLS compatriots. "The NSLS has provided a strong platform and a national member network. I believe the leadership potential and opportunities available through the NSLS are still on the horizon as I am only just beginning my career as a consultant for prison reform, reentry organizations, and higher education in prison. The NSLS will be there to help me grow along the way."

Redemption Through Education

Fordham’s advice for others? "Education is the great equalizer for anyone aspiring to become a leader. To me, education means more than books and long hours of study. To me, education means redemption."

Education allowed Fordham to dream about life after incarceration. Having achieved his freedom, Fordham plans to start his own consultancy company, The Road to Reentry, focusing on prison reform, reentry, and higher education in prison.

“As a person with over 31 years of lived experience, I have a unique perspective I believe holds great value to the organizations and agencies who need my insight and ability to help them navigate prison policy, while also ensuring they deliver the most effective reentry tools and courses.”

Fordham’s definition of leadership is one of the driving forces behind this dream: "Leadership, specifically servant leadership, means to me the ability to see value in everyone. No matter where you are in life or what the world has thrown at you, serving others is the highest form of leadership. Serve others, no matter how much you may be hurting, because it can open you up to your greatest potential."

To see another story of a justice-impacted NSLS member turning to leadership and education to build a better life, check out how this Mott Community College grad went from incarceration to entrepreneurship.