From prison to progress: The odyssey of Damon Hartley

| Associate Editor

Damon Hartley speaks and acts with conviction, certainty and a rightfully earned dose of pride. He understands what hard work means and knows that preparation is the greatest foundation for success. Hartley knows all this because until this May, he was an inmate at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center (MECC) in Pacific, Mo. Now he is a student at Washington University’s University College, enrolled in two classes and working toward a degree in Global Leadership and Management. He also recently started working as a human resources and training manager at the insurance company American Income Life, a job that has helped him get his life back on track.

Damon Hartley, who was an inmate at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific, Mo., now takes classes at Washington University’s University College. Hartley participated in Wash. U.’s Prison Education Project during his time at the correctional center.Cate Jiang | Student Life

Damon Hartley, who was an inmate at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific, Mo., now takes classes at Washington University’s University College. Hartley participated in Wash. U.’s Prison Education Project during his time at the correctional center.

The foundation of his success was the Prison Education Project, which allows current inmates at MECC to take University College courses from Washington University professors, earning credits that can be transferred after their release.

Through the program, Hartley studied classical literature under Robert Henke, comparative literature and performing arts professor.

“[In Professor Henke’s class] I learned how to read different styles of writing,” Hartley said. “When you’re used to reading the same type of material, it’s kind of hard when you pick up something maybe a little bit more challenging for you, that actually will stimulate your mind…but when you get yourself to read it and you get to breaking it down, it’s no different from any other story.”

One of the texts that had a significant impact on Hartley was Homer’s “Odyssey,” in which the titular hero Odysseus journeys home following the battle of Troy. He gets lost along the way, discovering new parts of who he is before returning to his home of Ithaca.

Hartley’s journey, he said, has been similar.

“I was lost. I had to rediscover myself and break myself down and put it back together,” Hartley said.

This isn’t the first time Hartley has successfully remade himself, however. He struggled academically for several years while attending Belleville East High School. The awakening, for him, came from observing another student’s success.

“I saw someone in front of me consistently got As on every paper and one day I just said, ‘He’s not smarter than me,’ and so I decided to actually be proactive and I went from Cs and Ds to mainly As,” Hartley said.

That hard work landed him a work-study job at Ralston Purina during his senior year. At the same time, he signed up for delayed enlistment in the Air Force.

“I actually had a meeting with the CFO of Ralston and they were telling me how impressed they were with my work and everything and invited me to stay and actually have a career with them…I had already enlisted so I said, ‘You know what, I’ll go to the military,’” he said.

Hartley was stationed abroad in Tokyo where he learned to speak Japanese by working alongside the locals. The assignment helped him grow and gain maturity.

When he came back to the United States, however, he found himself struggling to focus again on furthering his education. Hartley enrolled in St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley.

“I did less than one semester,” Hartley said. “I wasn’t focused.”

But when it comes to his work at Wash. U., Hartley said, “I’m ready now more than I’ve ever been.”

A degree at Wash. U. isn’t the only thing Hartley is focusing on, though. He said he’s written three Christian books, is starting a nonprofit and is currently writing his autobiography.

“I’m about one-fourth of the way done with that,” Hartley said. He considers all these, first and foremost, personal accomplishments and signs that he’s living life the right way.

When asked about his nonprofit, Hartley becomes even more passionate.

He’s calling it the African American Educate Instead of Incarcerate Project and is finishing up the paperwork now. The mission of the project is exactly what the name suggests—it comes from Hartley’s own story and his experiences talking with individuals like himself.

“I believe that nine times out of 10, [African Americans in prison] didn’t have the upbringing to [show]…this is what options are available to you. When you grow up in a neighborhood and you’ve never traveled anywhere, you’ve never been anywhere, you think that that’s how life is. It’s not even second mind to you that it’s just the right thing because everyone [you] know does it,” he said.

Hartley wants to provide mentorship to kids and divert them from the path that they might otherwise be forced to follow due to the systems in which they grew up.

The project wouldn’t only help the inmates, but the state as well.

“In my opinion—and it’s backed up by facts—the amount of money that it takes for us to incarcerate an individual, you can educate that person and turn them into a productive member of society, and not have the stigmatism and everything else that goes along with it,” he said.

According to the United States Census Bureau data from 2013, Hartley’s numbers are correct. The state of Missouri spends, on average, $20,870 annually per inmate. Costs for K-12 public school students, meanwhile, are $9,597.

“You don’t have to be an athlete. You don’t have to be a rapper,” Hartley said. “You can get to college even just academically and doing the right thing.”

He knows because he’s been there and his story, he feels, is proof that there’s another way.

Hartley might still be working out the details of how the nonprofit will work, but outreach to prisons and schools are at the top of his list. One particular individual, whom Hartley met while at a city workhouse, struck him as indicative of the larger problems he wants to help solve.

“I was with a kid who was…18, and he was due to graduate. He couldn’t read or write, he couldn’t tell time. My first question is, ‘what is this person doing, about to graduate, and he can’t even read or write?’ The first thing to do is the education system needs to be rehabbed.”

Hartley continued: “Furthermore, [the kid] was on disability. He had some serious, obviously, learning disabilities. That was the reason why he couldn’t comprehend [reading and writing]…he got caught up with the wrong crowd, he was on the MetroLink…and they talked him into stealing an iPad. He got caught. He had a school uniform on…well, he got sentenced to five years probation. Number one, this kid is not mentally there, so why was he even put into the criminal system in the first place?”

If the education system and criminal justice system fail kids like this, Hartley hopes programs like the Prison Education Program can turn people’s life around. That, coupled with mentorship, could make the difference. He’s even in talks with Henke to create a documentary based on his story, in order to help bring hope to those that are still working to find themselves.

More specifically, Hartley is finding ways to incorporate his ideas of justice into his current work at American Income Life.

“A few weeks ago I hired a felon, because I believe that you can change,” Hartley said. “I’m starting to practice what I preach and the things that have been good to me. I’m starting to pay that forward.”

When it comes to how a degree from Wash. U. will help him do all this, Hartley is very clear.

“The sky will definitely be the limit,” Hartley said. “It won’t define who I am, but it will definitely put the icing on the cake as far as the journey. To be able to say that I did it, and I earned it, and when you earn something, no one can ever take it away from you.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show that Damon Hartley is majoring in Global Leadership and Management, not Global Research Management, as was previously stated.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.

Subscribe