Northwestern psychology professor talks about time management, hot yoga and how much can change in one generation.
For the last 16 years, since my commutation from a death sentence, I’ve resided at Stateville prison in Joliet, Ill. My path to life without parole started when I was young.
I was born to teenage parents living in the Stateway Gardens housing project in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Less than a year later they separated and were headed for divorce. I would not meet my biological father until I was 7 years old. He remains a virtual stranger to me.
My late mother battled bipolar depression. One moment she would shower me with love and affection, the next she would physically and verbally abuse me. As an adult I would learn of her own sexual and physical abuse, as well as her mental illness. Growing up, I just thought she hated me, and all I ever wanted was her love.
During my formative years I had a stream of stepfathers, including some who negatively influenced me. I learned that fear and violence were tools of survival, and I was an apt pupil. At age 9 I bashed another boy’s teeth out with a brick because he pushed my 4-year-old sister down, skinning her knee. At age 11 I stabbed another boy with a dinner fork because he called me a sissy.
By age 17 I was a full-grown delinquent and a member of the Black Gangster Disciples. But I was smart enough to pass the entrance exam and get into the then-prestigious Paul Laurence Dunbar vocational school. One teacher in particular saw great promise in me and tried to help me succeed.
However, the die had been cast. My short-lived career at Dunbar ended when I robbed a nurse at Michael Reese Hospital at knifepoint. I was caught, arrested and kicked out of high school.
I never looked back. Soon after, I was arrested for gang intimidation and aggravated assault. The case was eventually dismissed, but this latest incident convinced my mother that she had to get me out of the city.
Through a housing program called Section 8 my mother was able to move us to suburban Schaumburg, Ill. In the early ’80s the city had only a handful of black residents.
The night after we moved in, my mom sent me to the store to buy cigarettes. On my way home a police officer stopped me, searched me and said, “We don’t like you city n-----s in our town, so you be careful, boy.” I thought of the stories my granny used to tell of black boys and men being lynched. I went home scared and humiliated.
One night my sister Kim and I got into a loud argument. Some concerned neighbor must have called the police, who kicked in our front door with guns drawn and shouted for me, and a relative who was visiting, to lie facedown on the ground. Hearing the commotion from her wheelchair upstairs, my mother demanded to know what they were doing to her son.
When my mom objected to the officers’ threats to search the house, the younger cop barked, “We’re gonna search this house even if I have to go through you to do it.”
All fear left me at those words, and I stepped between the police and my mom and said, “If you put your hands on my mother, you’re gonna need more than just a nightstick.”
In the end, the sergeant arrived and said, “There’s no reason for us to get involved. Let the n-----s handle their own problems.”
The next day I was arrested while going to the store. They claimed I fit the description of a “black boy” who attempted to rape a white girl. I was beaten, choked and denied counsel until I signed a typed confession. At a hearing the judge ruled that I had “no proof to substantiate my claim” of innocence and that the confession was coerced. I could go to trial, but my public defender advised me to take four years for burglary and attempted rape and I’d be out in less than nine months. If convicted, I would face
30 years. I took the plea!
An 18-year-old has no business being confined with seasoned criminals. But there I was, and if I wanted to survive I’d better learn the art of war. I learned too well. By the time I was paroled, I was a sociopath.
In prison it is mandatory that you carry a weapon. To be caught without a weapon can lead to certain death, or worse. Even on the outside, I could not shake the habit of being armed. One day while commuting to Chicago on a bus to go to school to become a medical assistant, I stabbed a white man after he called me a n----r! He caught all the rage from the injustice I felt I’d been afflicted with by whites in power. I went back to prison for 18 months, and when I came home this time, my soul was completely devoid of light. I began using drugs heavily; it was the only way I could numb the incessant pain in my heart. I took to burglarizing homes to get money for drugs. One such excursion would end in my vicious killing of another human being.
In May 1990 I arrived on death row at Pontiac Correctional Center, where I would spend 13 years waiting to be executed.
My sentence was commuted in 2003 to life without parole. In April 2017 I’d been off death row for 14 years and was working in the chaplain department at Stateville when I bumped into a diminutive white lady who greeted me warmly. What was unusual about her was the way she navigated around the prison; she walked confidently and with a sense of purpose and wasn’t fearful or standoffish. She looked me directly in the eye, acknowledging my humanity.
I’d heard about this powerful teacher — Professor Jennifer Lackey — who was determined to bring the torchlight of knowledge to the caves of Stateville. I had already begun my journey of self-actualization while still on death row, but I’d had no formal education since I received my GED in 1983.
I asked Professor Lackey if I could enroll in her values course, and she informed me that her class was already three weeks in. But then she said, “If you can catch up on the readings and write the six required papers, you’re in.” I assured her I could do it, and I missed yard and stayed up late two consecutive nights to accomplish my goal.
The values course was just the type of intellectual stimulation I craved, but more than anything I was impressed by how seriously Professor Lackey took educating the men in her class. Later that fall Professor Lackey told the class about the Northwestern Prison Education Program, in which we could earn credits toward a university degree!
I took an application with no intention of submitting it. After class Professor Lackey approached me and said sincerely, “William, I want you to apply. You’ll be a wonderful student.” I was 53 at the time, but I felt like a child who’d just been praised by his favorite teacher. I went back to my cell and wrote the best essay of my life. To my utter surprise, I was accepted! I felt so light, so ebullient, that I feared I might float away. ‘’
NPEP has changed me in so many ways and enriched my life to a degree that constantly astounds me. I took a sociology course with the renowned Mary Pattillo. When I told my now-deceased granny about her, she exclaimed, “You mean the smart black woman I see on PBS all the time?” Professor Pattillo held us to the same academic standards as she did her Evanston students. She expanded my range of knowledge exponentially. Her writing assignments were challenging, and her hard-won praise of my essays made me beam with pride.
Then there are the Northwestern students who come here — rain, sleet or snow — every week to tutor us. One student, 19-year-old Devon, had a profound impact on me. I asked her to critique a paper on decision-making I had to write for Professor David Smith’s psychology class. It dealt with my decision to marry a woman while I was on death row. After reading, and then re-reading my paper, Devon said, “You are an exceptional writer. I’m so sorry you’ve had such a difficult life.” It was not what she said, but the sincerity behind what she said, that gave me the confidence that I could excel as a student.
NPEP has given me an extended family, people who see my human potential, and not just the horrible crime I committed. When you educate, you enlighten, and enlightenment leads to self-awareness and introspection. It sounds cliché, but it’s nonetheless true: “When you know better, you do better.”
NPEP has also had a big impact on my family. I grew up as the outcast. However, when they heard I’d been accepted into Northwestern University’s education program, every one of them told me how proud they were.
Moving forward, my primary goal is to earn my freedom either through clemency or the “young adult” issue that allows judges to resentence men and women who committed their crimes at an age when they were not fully culpable. In the interim I intend to keep evolving, both intellectually and as a conscientious human being. I cannot undo what I’ve done, but I can atone.
The knowledge of what it means to be “human” awakened in me true remorse for the harm I have done to others. Knowledge gave me the courage to accept responsibility for my crimes against society, even though on many levels society had failed to nurture and protect the helpless child that I once was. True and lasting change is not the result of retributive justice and harsh sentencing. Change comes from a renewing of the mind, and that can only come through the education and cultivation of incarcerated men and women.
William Peeples, a student in the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP), is serving life without parole in Stateville.