The Education of Lyle Clinton May

Prison education programs are often aimed at reducing recidivism and helping prisoners find careers once they’re no longer behind bars. So what happens when a prisoner doesn’t have a release date?

December 21, 2017
Lyle Clinton May
(North Carolina Department of Public Safety)

In many ways, Lyle Clinton May is an ordinary Ohio University student. He has a major. He has an adviser with whom he communicates regularly. He’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

He’s also a convicted felon, awaiting the death penalty for a double homicide committed in 1997.

He takes classes through a correspondence program. He stays in contact with his adviser over the phone -- a convenience that Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C., only afforded to its death-row inmates last year. Email isn’t available.

In a time when many lawmakers and policy wonks laud prison-education programs and potential reforms as ways to reduce recidivism and train inmates for postprison careers, May -- unlikely to ever be released, unlikely to ever “use” his degree in the real world -- is an anomaly. At a time when lawmakers emphasize higher education as a pathway to successful careers, May’s very existence as a student, and his active pursuit of a degree, pose existential questions not only about prison-education reform but about the purpose of higher education itself.


Despite his isolation from the outside world, May remains in touch with current events and culture, thanks to phone access, mail and television. Through help on the outside, he even runs a blog and participates in a spoken-word, podcast-like program for death-row inmates.

In a phone interview with Inside Higher Ed, he likened his pursuit of higher education to the challenges faced by Matt Damon’s character in the 2015 film The Martian. Damon plays an astronaut stranded on Mars, abandoned by the rest of his team. Alone on the arid planet, he successfully toils against all odds to grow potatoes and ration his existing food supplies, contact Earth, and, eventually, get rescued.

“Matt Damon’s character is stranded in a place where there is nothing. It is a wasteland, and he has very limited resources. But what he ends up doing is figuring out that he needs to communicate with Earth. And to do that, he has to find a way first to survive the wasteland,” May said.

For May, though, Damon’s metaphorical prison is swapped with a very real one. Legal experts doubt that, even if May’s appeals against his death sentence are successful or North Carolina banned capital punishment, he’d be eligible for parole. With North Carolina's death penalty having been legally stalled since 2006, he might never get an execution date.

He’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in specialized studies, with a specialization in sociology and psychology, and has already earned his associate degree with a specialization in social sciences. And whether that pursuit is regarded by those on the outside as impractical and fruitless for some, or not deserved and soft on crime by others, May lives and survives, as everyone does: day by day. And his education -- and the writing pursuits that have stemmed from it -- are key to that survival.

“For me, survival has been obtaining an education specific to my understanding of the world that I live in,” he said. “Once I obtained my education, once I had my limited resources gathered, it became an issue of finding a way to communicate to the outside world.”

An avid writer, he has published a memoir, Waiting for the Last Train, and has written about prison, prison education and death row in various outlets, including a venture with Vice and the Marshall Project.

Inside Higher Ed spoke with May over a series of phone calls made from prison after the North Carolina Department of Public Safety denied a request for an in-person interview. A spokesman declined to elaborate on that decision beyond saying the denial was made by senior management. The only concession made with May was that questions directly about his case be directed to his lawyer.

“On a personal level, studying psychology and sociology helped me mature in a place meant to stifle growth,” he said. “The courses have helped me become completely autonomous from my environment … It also really helps me to understand the purpose of prison. A lot of people seem to think that prison is about punishment, and incapacitation. But there’s this third element that’s forgotten, or overlooked, in the rush to simply get rid of people who are convicted of crimes: That’s the rehabilitative element of the criminal justice system.

“I’ve been given access to that element.”


Valerie Sue Riddle and her 5-year-old son, Kelly Mark Laird Jr., were murdered in early July 1997. Their bodies were found alongside a scenic parkway outside Asheville, N.C.

May was quickly charged, and on March 12, 1999, he was found guilty of their murders. The capital sentencing trial that followed recommended a death sentence for each case.

The death chamber at Central Prison has not been used since 2006. Via Kelly Hinchcliffe / WRAL During his trial, May’s lawyers tried to introduce evidence pointing to the possibility of another culprit, but it was dismissed. In his appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court, that dismissal was upheld as proper. Significant DNA evidence was found linking May to the murders, and he confessed to police. In his book, which documents his run-ins with the law, struggles with mental health problems, and abuse of alcohol and drugs, May writes that he has little recollection of the events that happened during the time of the murders, or the confession that came afterward, though he writes, “I’m not a murderer and do not possess the cold-blooded nature such an act requires.”

His lawyer Jonathan Broun, who has been with May since 2003, declined to comment on his innocence since the lengthy appeals process against the conviction and the death sentences is currently focused on technical parts of the case that have already been decided, rather than on trying to declare innocence.

Regardless of May’s guilt, however, his slow, class-by-class pursuit of a degree through correspondence courses poses questions not always considered by policy makers and prison-education reform advocates. Do death-row prisoners, or others who are not likely to leave prison, deserve an education just as much as those who could -- by the standard definition -- give back to and reintegrate into society at large? Should a prisoner’s future -- or past -- matter to educators? Or is education something that ought to be pursued for its own sake, by anyone, as a human right?


In his book and in interviews, May has admitted he was not a stellar student when he was younger. But since going to prison, he says, his education has become not only a passion, but an irreplaceable guide to navigating life behind bars, and a cornerstone of his advocacy for other prisoners’ access to education.

A high school dropout with a GED, May started pursuing higher education at the suggestion of the priest who was leading the weekly Masses he was attending at the prison. Through the support of a church, he’s been able to secure an anonymous sponsor to pay for his education, although he’s working on getting his grades up and applying for scholarships so that he can have more secure financing for his education.

The current rate for the correctional education program in which May is enrolled is about $350 per credit hour. May’s financing -- though consistent so far -- comes on a course-by-course basis, meaning it could dry up, and derail his chances at a degree, at any moment.

“Initially, higher education was not something I sought out. I was attending a weekly Mass on death row, challenging the priest, generally being annoying. But I kept coming back and asking questions because I believed if anyone had the answers, it would be a priest,” he said.

When the priest suggested he take college courses to feed some of his curiosity, May thought he was being sarcastic. College had never crossed his mind, and the thought of taking classes -- much less pursuing a degree -- was intimidating.

“I agreed to a course, for something to do,” he said. “What I discovered was that I’d really gotten away from what school was all about. It was about learning, and I was starved. My mind needed learning.”

Many of those who are incarcerated also lack the financial means to pursue higher education, and tuition assistance students on the outside might take for granted is not typically available for prisoners. In 1994, as part of the sweeping tough-on-crime reforms to the criminal-justice system laid out in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, prisoners were deemed ineligible for Pell Grants, the federal government’s primary scholarship program for low-income students.

The bill originated in the House of Representatives and was co-sponsored by Chuck Schumer when he was a representative from New York City. The bill’s sponsor, Representative Jack Brooks, and its co-sponsor, Representative William Hughes -- both Democrats -- left office in the years after the bill’s passage. Schumer has since vaulted to the spot of top-ranking Democrat in the Senate.

While Schumer has sustained his popularity, however, parts of the 1994 crime bill have not, as criminal-justice reform has started to question policies that have emphasized punitive measures, mandatory-minimum sentencing and mass incarceration. Even the Pell Grant measure has come under scrutiny.

Schumer’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment seeking his position on the provision of the bill that struck prisoners’ eligibility for Pell Grants.


Students in the Cornell University prison-education program.Julie Ajinkya, vice president of applied research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said that while a lot of prison-education reform policy is aimed at prisoners who will one day leave -- and their successful integration into society -- that leaves some populations and situations unaccounted for. (One example is a prison-education program run by Cornell University, featured in the photo at right.)

While the 1994 crime bill provides some obstacles, states also have instituted varying restrictions against or programs for prison education, leaving a scattered landscape that’s largely inadequate, in her view.

“So much of the conversation has been focused on pushing for educational opportunities [for prisoners] because they reduce recidivism,” she said. “Some of the conversation, particularly in the world of advocates around this issue, focuses on what happens to prison conditions when you actually introduce education.”

Education can also be a way to reduce violence behind bars and improve conditions between inmates and guards.

“If you were just to think about how it transforms their current environment, I think there’s something there,” she said. “But then, ultimately, I am an educator. I don’t think that anyone who really believes in educating inmates should do it just because they think it’s going to reduce recidivism and increase public safety.”

Rather, she said, education is “fundamentally transformative” and can be a way of righting other wrongs, such as incarceration and education discrepancies that fall along racial and socioeconomic lines.

“If we can fix injustices that [prisoners] were already victims of, I think we should open up educational opportunities to everyone who wants them,” she said.

Robert Durham, executive director of the nonprofit research group the Death Penalty Information Center, echoed the transformative abilities education can provide prisoners.

“Education serves a really important function,” he said. “The person they are 10, 15, 20 years after they get to prison is not the person they were at the time they committed the offense.”

Prisoners often come from unstable backgrounds, he said, which makes attaining an education difficult. The consistency of prison life, paradoxically, provides a stable environment for maturation and growth that wasn’t in a prisoner’s life previously.

Coupled with the years-long appeals processes that come with death sentences -- especially in states such as North Carolina, where executions are stalled -- education can be an essential resource, Durham said.

“It is better for the mental health of the prisoner, and for the security of the guard, for death-row prisoners to have access to appropriate services,” he said. Additionally, the single most likely outcome in capital cases is that a conviction or death sentence is overturned. When prisoners leave death row -- whether they’re headed to another prison or they’re released -- the time they spent on death row shouldn’t be wasted or restricted, Durham said.

But Durham’s and Ajinkya’s views certainly aren’t the only perspective on prison-education reform. While many protest the death penalty because of its ugly racial and geographic and socioeconomic disparities, standing up for death-row inmates still means standing up for people convicted of some of the worst crimes.

In February 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a plan to finance education programs in 10 of the state’s prisons, a move that was aimed at reducing recidivism. After Congress passed the 1994 crime bill, New York, like states across the country, followed suit with a separate bill that cut inmates off from state financial aid. That dried up much of the funding that supported the prison education programs, and many closed down. Cuomo’s effort would have put an influx of state funding into the largely eroded prison education system.

With phrases like “kids before cons” and “Attica University” tossed around, the attack ads pretty much wrote themselves. The push for the program was dead in a matter of months, and the governor’s office was left looking for private money to fund the effort. Private efforts, of course, like programs administered by Cornell and New York Universities, were already the status quo.

“Rewarding criminal behavior with free college education reinforces their actions and makes them smarter criminals,” James Tedisco, a Republican state assemblyman, said in a statement at the time. Others raised concerns that the program wouldn’t be fair to non-incarcerated students struggling with debt.

“I see a lot of that online, in the research I do,” Kyle McKenzie, May’s adviser at Ohio University, said of people who disagree with aiding prisoners’ education efforts. “I suppose that if you did a poll, there would probably be a group of people at the university who aren’t even aware that we have a correctional education program.”

But working with prisoners appealed to McKenzie, and when she took the position she was excited that it would be part of the workload. May praised her as one of the most important people to his success so far.

“All students have potential. I understand that there is a feeling that education is more of a privilege, maybe, than a right,” McKenzie said. “I see where people say, ‘Prisoners are the last people we should worry about getting an education.’ … But from my point of view, I enjoy helping students of all kinds overcome barriers to education.”

Perhaps trying to strike a middle ground, the Obama administration introduced a pilot program in 2016 that made a limited number of prisoners eligible for Pell Grants. Even that program, though, was limited to 12,000 prisoners who were likely going to be released within five years, leaving those like May shut out.


Michelle Jones made headlines in September when The New York Times revealed that she had been accepted into a Ph.D. program at Harvard, only to have that decision overridden and revoked after concerns were raised about her background and her time in prison. Jones, who had been incarcerated in Indiana for more than 20 years for the murder of her 4-year-old son, pursued higher education while behind bars -- earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees -- and then applied to prestigious doctoral programs in history as her release was approaching. She ultimately ended up at New York University.

“She’s my hero,” May said.

Jones’s prosecutor, Diane Marger Moore, criticized Harvard, telling the Times that Jones’s punishment for the murder was her prison sentence, not a ban from Harvard on furthering her education.

“Since the article came out in The New York Times, some of my very close friends in law enforcement were sort of surprised, and I guess took contrary positions to it,” Marger Moore told Inside Higher Ed. “Prisoners, whether violent or not, have the right -- and we should expect and demand of them -- to improve their lives.”

Marger Moore, who now works at a law firm in Los Angeles, said that during her time as a prosecutor, defense lawyer and magistrate, she’s seen both the crumbling of funding for prison-education programs, and also a changing public perception surrounding prisoner education.

“There’s some dramatically different views on it, and I think that there’s less attitude about whether or not a prisoner has the right to educate themselves than about the money being spent to allow these folks to educate themselves,” she said.

Following up on his 2014 push, Cuomo was able to secure $7 million in funding for New York prison-education programs in August. Even that money, though, came from bank settlements secured by the Manhattan district attorney’s office -- a compromise that kept taxpayer money out of the picture while still putting public funds toward the prison-education effort.


May does his best to remain positive and upbeat and advocate for others in similar situations. In an essay for Scalawag magazine, he pleaded for understanding from those on the outside as he argued that all prisoners should be able to get an education:

Non-incarcerated citizens who go into debt struggling to pay for college have a reason to resent anyone who received a free education, but they also need to understand there is no other way a prisoner could receive such valuable knowledge. The 1 percent and middle America do not populate prisons -- they’re filled with the poorest, least educated citizens with the most need.

In an ideal world, May said, there would not only be more government funding for education programs, but more participation from individual colleges as well. Additionally, the technological restraints on prisoners make it difficult to be competitive for 21st-century jobs that rely on tech.

Until then, though, May has to deal with the world he lives in. And financial or accessibility roadblocks determined by policy wonks in Washington, Albany or Raleigh aren’t the only obstacles he has to deal with.

“You have the noise level, you have people who aren’t working on positive endeavors, so they can be kind of downers if you hang around them too much,” he said. “Because we were only recently granted access to phones in the last year, prior to that it was incredibly frustrating to communicate with a university by mail. Say you’re missing an assignment or an exam gets lost, and the next thing you know two months have passed before you’ve caught up to where you need to be. It can be incredibly disheartening to the process.”

May persists.

“A friend of mine had received an execution date, and I was really having a hard time focusing on anything,” he said. “I pursue higher education not only because I want to learn as much as I can, but for all those who don’t have the opportunity, for all those who are incapable of learning. Regardless of my future, whether I die of old age or lethal injection, I educate myself in the moment, rather than in fear of a future that may or may not happen.”

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