Kelly Fowler: Education Redefined Her Life's Journey
Kelly Fowler spent years trying to fight her incarceration for a crime she didn’t commit. At her lowest point, she needed to find something to “make this whole thing make sense.” She enrolled in college courses, completed her Associate Degree, has since completed a research internship at Princeton, and now has her sights set on a master’s degree in Management Information Systems and Supply Chain Management. Here are excerpts from a recent conversation with Kelly.
I’m a second semester junior at Rutgers University, majoring in Management Information Systems--M.I.S. However, I am considering a double-major, adding Supply Chain to the educational mix as well, and combining that with getting my masters at the same time. I’m looking to do something where my criminal record does not become the focal point in finding a job. My life, my mere existence should not be represented by the humiliation of my incarceration. I am not a second-class citizen. I want to be able to just really excel, to where it’s not viewed as a negative. Where it’s actually viewed as a positive, because I probably would not be where I am today if it were not for this journey. They say some things happen for a reason, even though the reason may not be understood at the first glance. At the end of the day, what happened to me could have happened to anyone.
I had been involved with a young woman and it was not a healthy relationship. It was extremely tumultuous. I had actually filed a complaint against her to keep her away from me, which was laughable to the courts. Then, one night, someone lit a basket of socks on fire on her porch. Socks that she admits putting there. Her house did not burn down, and no one got hurt. Un
fortunately for me, I was two miles away at the time of the fire but instead “authorities” articulated to the courts that I was block(s) away. You see how they did that. Making the word block plural made the statement true, and convincing to those who didn't understand the word play or deception. Wow! What a smack in the face. I was a 45-year-old lesbian woman who worked for the City of Jersey City for over ten years as a Program Development Specialist. I championed successful youth programs, health fairs and a variety of community outreach programs, and received 3 citations from the U.S. Senate before being indicted for alleged attempted murder, aggravated arson, burglary, terroristic threats and criminal mischief in 2012. I was charged with all that for allegedly setting a small wicker basket of socks on fire on the outside vestibule (too small to be considered a porch) of my former paramours’ house. I pled not guilty. However, I was convicted of aggravated arson, burglary, and criminal mischief by a jury in 2014 and acquitted of attempted murder and terroristic threats. I was sentenced to eight years’ incarceration, for literally a basket of socks. Nowhere in the milieu of urban Essex county where comparable incidents are only subjected to a municipal court calendar, would an eight-year sentence be imposed. Moreover, I DID NOT DO THIS! As a result I had lost my integrity, my dignity, my pension, my home, my personal property, and my entire life trying to defend a convoluted fabrication.
Regrettably, I spent 6 years and 9 months in prison for something I did not do. The evidence to support guilt in my case was non-existent. The supposed evidence are inferences; mere possibilities opposed to probabilities. “Maybe she did it” is not enough to destroy a person's life. “Maybe,” “perhaps,” “possibly” should never be enough. I was charged as either the accomplice or the perpetrator: more maybe’s, perhaps or possibly. I am left to assume that this action is a default mechanism built into the system to give deference to the state’s ideas or to avoid the responsibility of having to gather real evidence to prove their contention. Again, what a smack in the face.
If I had committed the crime, I would have taken the offered plea of 1 year: I would have served 9 months and been done. But I was innocent. So I went to trial. And, basically, I was boxed in and couldn’t defend myself. I couldn’t take the stand. If I did, they would have brought up a 1993 conviction. Yes, 1993. I had not been in any trouble since 1993. My lawyer did not want me to take the chance of that coming up.
In the criminal justice system, I shouldn’t have to prove myself innocent; I should be assumed innocent until proven guilty. But because of my past, I was assumed guilty.
Before all this, I hadn’t been in prison since being released in 1998 in relation to a 1993 conviction. I had been doing the right things and being a productive citizen. I worked for the City of Jersey City for about 10 years. I was doing everything I was supposed to do: I made good money, I owned my own home, I was doing all the right things. At the time, I was the president of a motorcycle club that not only rode bikes but also contributed to the community: we fed the homeless on Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. We sponsored blanket drives, bookbag drives, health fairs in sponsorship with Jersey City, and more. I received citations from the New Jersey Senate for these kinds of contributions. I felt like they were taking away a person who was doing good for the community, and for nothing. I was wrongfully convicted, which is truly disheartening. I do not think that I can ever get past that trauma, even though I try to every day.
The whole time I was in prison, I was a very angry person. When I initially embarked upon the journey, I tried to have faith in the system. I was hopeful that the nightmare, the egregious error, blunder would correct itself. Unfortunately, it never happened. Of course my mirage of justice was shaken as I personally experienced the injustices that had engulfed me. I was fighting and fighting and fighting to get out. I spent so much of my money and my family’s money, and so much time as well, trying to appeal. And losing. But I continued to fight in spite of it all.
In the meantime I saw people going to school, but at first I thought, “No, I’m not going to take classes because I’m going to be leaving here, any day.” I got to a point where I was just exhausted. And I had to deal with the fact that time was moving and life was happening in the real world without me.. Even though I still had fight left in me, I had to find a way for this wasted time to not be wasted time. I needed to change the dynamics of my incarceration into something positive, something beneficial. I watched other women going to school, day after day, and decided to just do it. I felt like school would help me focus and it became the thing that would help me change the narrative. Tia [Ryans, FORTE House founder] was there with me. She was supportive from day one.
I took the placement test, and began taking classes. However, I’m an overachiever, so it was important for me to finish on time. It’s a two-year degree, so it made sense to finish in two years, not four or five like some did. I didn’t have that long. And I needed to do this to make the whole prison experience beneficial. I began to drown myself in school. I was taking four and five classes--as many as they’d allow-- when others were taking one or two. I knew I would be going home in November, 2020, and I needed to finish in those two years.
Right from the beginning, I was hearing about Princeton University because there are teachers from Princeton, and the Prison Teaching Initiative. I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if I graduated from Princeton University. Even then, when I was just starting out in classes, I was thinking along those lines and looking at the bigger picture. I was trying to see, where do I fit in, in the scheme of things?
Going back to school at 50, or even in my late 40s, took a lot of courage. I’m contending with this younger generation that’s a little more well-equipped than I am in certain areas, especially when it comes to technology. So, I had to work harder than they did. I went to class, I got very good grades, and I timed it all perfectly. I was finishing up my last class when I was released on November 4 [due to the N.J. pandemic early release program]. I was due to leave on November 20 anyway.
I left, but I was adamant about finishing my class. I didn’t want to not complete the coursework. This had to be done! Finished. When I left, I still had less than one month to finish this one class, which I did from home. They allowed me to do that, because I had done everything to prep: I let everyone know what my intention was, and I did everything in my power to make sure I could finish. Technically, I graduated in December, 2020, magna cum laude. In January 2021, I started at Rutgers University. I chose the MIS major because I want people to look at my capabilities over my past indiscretions. I’ve already been punished; I don’t need to be punished again and again.
I did well my first semester at Rutgers, and decided to embark upon a new endeavor for the summer. I wanted to find a way to give back and make a difference. So, I filled out an application for the Prison Teaching Initiative Humanities Internship at Princeton. Remember, Princeton! Yup, I was a part of their ASAP program (Aspiring Scholars and Professionals program). I wrote a research paper and did a presentation on how racism exacerbates mental health concerns in the African American Incarcerated Student and how those concerns affect the learning abilities of African American Inmates. In addition, I suggested how the Prison Teaching Initiative could deliver high- quality education to incarcerated African American students.
When I was incarcerated, I felt like I would never get a job. Who is going to hire me? They’d look at me as if I’m an arsonist. But, I’m not--I didn’t do any of those things. It just made me say to myself, “Okay, what are you going to do? Are you going to allow this to defeat you, or are you going to push forward and do everything in your power to be something great--greater than they say you are?” ASAP was something great, and there is more greatness coming.
Another reason I decided to major in MIS. It is the study of people, processes and technology in an organizational context. I’m a go-getter, and I like to figure out how things work. I’m a hands-on kind of person. Anything that challenges me, I don’t run away from it -- I run to it. So I felt that was my wheelhouse -- that puzzle where I could put all the pieces together. It was me starting my path to greatness.
Classes for this semester started last Wednesday with Managerial Accounting. I’m very excited to go back to school. I enjoy it. It’s so much to look forward to. It’s like the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s like you’re trying to get through this tunnel, what we call life, and there’s a light at the end and you’re trying to reach it. What people don’t really know is that as we travel through the tunnel, there are light switches within the tunnel. You just have to turn them on, and then you can see your path. It lights your way. When I go to class I’m excited to be there, because I know that I might find another light switch in there that I can turn on. Those lights are lighting my way to my final destination, whatever that may be. I don’t know yet.
I’m in awe of finding out what my life will be about, what I will do. I tell people: in my obituary, I don’t want to be defined by being incarcerated. I want to be defined by my good works, the things I’ve done, the accomplishments I’ve made. In order to do that, I have to do good things, I have to find ways to pay it forward. And that’s exactly what I do. Every chance I get I pay it forward.
When I was away, I lost my home, my car and everything I had worked so hard to obtain. Most importantly, I lost my grandmother. She was my solid ground. Now I’m living in my sister’s home with my mother and my niece. Before, I took care of my mother who is disabled; she lived on the first floor of my house with my pop, and I lived upstairs. Now I live in one room--it’s like a bigger cell again. Having my own means something to me, and I want to find a way to get my own back. I’m going to keep forging forward. The internship at Princeton made me know I could do it. When I say Princeton University, I say it with pride, with respect, and I can hold my head high and puff my chest out, because I was there. I worked with those scholars. I measured up.
That experience tells me that I can do whatever it takes. I have that self esteem that maybe was diminishing because of what I’ve experienced and the traumas that I’ve been through. Yes, they are still there, but I push past them. I have made it this far. I am going to keep going. Listen, I’ve had speaking engagements; they’re paying me to talk! No one ever paid me to speak before. That’s all Princeton! And, I will be participating in the Denver, Colorado Conference. Again, all Princeton. Better yet, all me too.
So, yes, I have a story to tell. I try to do it with confidence, and in a way that will help and encourage someone else.