Inside Campbell University’s
Prison Teaching Initiative

Story by Billy Liggett • Illustration by Amanda Dockery • Photography by Bennett Scarborough

The 11 graduates of Campbell University’s prison teaching program at Sampson County Correctional Institution in Clinton, North Carolina, say their education has given them purpose and a desire to be better people. Their hard work could pave the way for future programs and make a real difference in the state’s recidivism rate.

“There’s this stigma of who you are.”

For Kevin Cook, it’s the colorless prison jumpsuit and tattoos that adorn his face and neck. It’s a rap sheet of 20 criminal offenses committed over a five-year span during his youth. Armed robberies and assaults.

“But that was another time.”

It’s June, and Cook is sitting at a desk in a room that would look like any other college classroom in America if not for those matching outfits he and his classmates are required to wear. These students are two years into a program that has changed their lives and two months away from what they previously thought impossible.

“They don’t see what’s inside. This aspiration of who you want to be.”    

A critical thinker. Respected. An asset to society. A good role model to his teenage son who doesn’t remember a time when his father wasn’t behind bars.

He’s eight years into a prison sentence that could have another eight years to go.
He has forfeited the prime years of his life because of his past mistakes.

“That’s not who I am anymore.”

of the men and women released from North Carolina prisons in 2017 returned within two years.

It’s August, and Cook is smiling as he buttons up his white dress shirt and black pants — clothing that meant court dates in the past. Dry cleaning bags protecting black and orange graduation gowns are hanging in the corner of the room. 

He and 10 other men are making history as the first two-year graduates of Campbell University’s prison education program, a joint effort launched by the school and the North Carolina Department of Public Safety at Sampson County Correctional Institution in Clinton back in 2019. The program has been hailed a success by both the University and the state, with plans in the works to expand the effort in more prisons with the goal of reducing recidivism (the term used to define those who reoffend and return to incarceration) for the men and women who take part. 

The gray concrete walls of the Sampson recreational room are splashed with orange Campbell banners, and the 11 men are — on this day — being celebrated by a room full of professors, school and prison administrators and about 20 other men who are next in line for a chance to improve their chances at a better future. 

Kevin Cook is a college graduate. And his biggest worry today is the commencement speech his classmates have asked him to give and the dangling tassel from his graduation cap that obstructs his view as he tries to read it. But he brushes his nerves — and the tassel — aside to deliver a message on resilience. About rising above “monumental pressures,” learning from prior mistakes and achieving amid “the chaos fostered by our current environment.” 

About the indelible mark his professors and the program have already left on his life.