I went through the criminal-justice system in Toronto when I was a teenager. Luckily I have no criminal record, by grace of laws pertaining to young offenders in Canada. I was supposed to have spent six months in juvenile jail but was fortunate enough to have been sentenced to community service in lieu of prison time. Nevertheless, I did spend a brief period behind bars as part of that process. Most of the people in my prison block were childhood friends and friends of friends. (I grew up at a time when youth gangs were prevalent.) All were definitely street-savvy, if not book-smart. Indeed, many of the people in detention with me seemed just as sharp-minded as people I would go on to meet a decade later as a graduate student at Princeton.
Professor Jeff Dolven noted in the article about the Prison Teaching Initiative (On the Campus, June issue) that “much intelligence and talent and imagination is locked up in prisons.” I would add that for the most part, the talent is also wasted in prison.
Had I been sentenced to closed custody, my life would definitely have not taken a path toward a Princeton Ph.D. Instead, I would have likely turned out with dead-end life prospects and succumbed to recidivism like much of the incarcerated population (as was the case for those who were with me in juvenile detention). What separates a student from Princeton and an inmate in jail is quite often just luck.