Once Convicts’ Last Hope, Now a Students’ Advocate


“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” –Frederick Douglass

Former defense attorney, Tom Dunn, traded in the courthouse for the classroom, where he now works as a middle school teacher in a disadvantaged district of Atlanta, Georgia. From his 20-years of defending inmates on death row, Dunn observed a common thread among prisoners: the absence of a positive role model such as a father or a teacher, that might have meant “the difference between a good life and a ruined life.” The impetus for Dunn’s career change came after a devastating illness that led to congestive heart failure. Recognizing he could no longer endure the stress of being a lawyer, Dunn resigned and took a volunteer post at Teach for America with a focus on special education, because he saw learning disabilities “in nearly every case” on death row.

Almost ten years ago, I had the opportunity to volunteer for two years at the Federal Prison, with Native Americans in maximum security and men in the “camp” who were going to be released in the next year. I absolutely agree with Dunn’s assessment. I often reflected that if the men I worked with had been born into my family, they wouldn’t be there. Had I been born into their families and oppressive circumstances, I may very well be in their shoes. This experience left an indelible mark on me and has greatly shaped the work I do with LifeBound. I saw that the men in prison had practical intelligence, but not school smarts. Without emotional intelligence and at least one positive role model, these young men were doomed.

I believe strongly that we need to begin to see students and their gifts and talents more broadly. If someone is struggling in school, it doesn’t mean they are a second-class citizen. It means they need intervention, extra help, tutors and the respect to continue to explore who they are becoming. Not everyone in this country is meant to go to college right out of high school, but with the right guidance, students strong in practical intelligence can learn to do work that is meaningful while developing the maturity which Higher Education requires. Let’s start to look more broadly at students of all kinds—especially those who struggle at a young age. I would rather put money into helping them as children, than pay $65,000 a year on average per inmate within our growing prison system.

New York Times

ATLANTA — “Pick your head up, buddy,” Tom Dunn said to Darius Nash, who had fallen asleep during the morning’s reading drills. “Sabrieon, sit down, buddy,” he called to a wandering boy. “Focus.”

Mr. Dunn’s classroom is less than three miles from his old law office, where he struggled to keep death row prisoners from the executioner’s needle. This summer, after serving hundreds of death row clients for 20 grinding, stressful years, he traded the courthouse for Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.

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