Foundation aims to keep children from following parents to prison
Our highest hope for our students at Crossroads is that they will return to their communities as redeemed men and women. But what about the students who might never go home?
For those students, we pray that they become involved with the transformative work God is doing behind bars and that they serve as His agents of redemption and renewal.
Michael Dotson has lived out this vision of restoration inside the Tennessee prison that has been his home for more than twenty-five years. Sentenced to life behind bars with no chance of parole until 2046, Michael has accumulated a long list of accomplishments: Tier 3 Crossroads student, community college graduate, volunteer with a program for at-risk youth, and, most remarkably, founder of a nonprofit that aims to break the cycle of incarceration.
From behind bars, Michael established Break the Cycle Foundation, a public foundation that strives to help break the intergenerational cycle of incarceration. “My experiences have led me to develop a passion to make a profound difference by helping prevent other children from making the same mistakes [I made],” he said.
Michael first encountered the power of giving back when he was allowed to volunteer with a program for at-risk youth in the community near his prison. The children were at risk partly because they had a parent behind bars.
“After having countless children run up and hug me, sobbing . . . over the absence of their fathers and the pain of their situation, the burden became overwhelming,” he said. “In addition . . . I witnessed countless fathers at the altar, crying out in prayer, asking God to prevent their children from following them to prison.”
Michael saw himself in those children. His journey toward incarceration began in his childhood. He attended fifteen different schools as his mother tried to keep Michael’s father from knowing where they were. By the time Michael finally got to meet his father, he was too filled with anger, bitterness, and distrust to allow his father to get close to him. He began hanging out with people who were making destructive choices. At nineteen, when many people his age were just beginning college, Michael was sentenced to life in prison.
“I truly believe that prison not only saved my life but has been the best thing, other than my personal salvation, that has ever happened to me. It has forced me to deal with the pain of my past and surrender it at the foot of the cross. . . . I truly discovered there was a purpose in the pain and how God uses the pain of our past to help us guide and comfort others as they are experiencing many of the same things we once did.”
Crossroads became part of Michael’s life in 2015. He signed up to fulfill his desire to learn more about Scripture and possibly pursue a seminary degree.
“The Crossroads mentoring program has played a tremendous role in helping me draw closer to God,” he told us. “Reading and studying the Word of God, along with prayer, has allowed me to grow a more intimate relationship with my Lord, and the Crossroads Bible studies have played a pivotal role in helping me draw closer to Him. Having a personal mentor is the linchpin to the success of this program. Not only do they hold me accountable to remain steadfast in my studies but they are always willing to pray, guide, and encourage me throughout my studies. My mentor is often the only positive bit of encouragement I, or many other Crossroads students, have during our incarceration.”
In addition to his life experience, research into the effects of incarceration on children inspired Michael to create Break the Cycle Foundation from behind bars with the help of a local businessman. Michael also plans to complete a bachelor’s degree and a master of business administration so he can run his foundation.
While Michael didn’t expect to walk free until 2046, he might get his chance at freedom sooner. He was recommended for release by the Tennessee Board of Parole Executive Clemency Unit in September 2022. The committee forwarded the recommendation to Governor Bill Lee. Michael now waits to hear if the governor will act on the board’s recommendation for his immediate release.
Pell Grants Open Doors to College
Michael Dotson completed an associate’s degree in 2021 thanks to expanding access to higher education in prisons and the partial reinstatement of federal education grants. Upcoming changes will ensure that more incarcerated individuals get the opportunity to attend college behind bars.
People with criminal records have limited access to federal student aid. From 1994 until 2015, incarcerated students were prohibited from receiving Pell Grants. In 2015, the US Department of Education started the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative in a limited number of prisons. Michael’s associate program, run through Dyersburg State Community College and established in partnership with the Tennessee Higher Education in Prison Initiative (THEI), became eligible to participate in the Pell Grant initiative in 2020.
In April 2022, the initiative nearly doubled in size, with two hundred colleges now offering programs behind bars. The US Department of Education cited studies showing that educational opportunities in prison reduce recidivism and are associated with higher employment rates.
Opportunities will expand again in July 2023, when Pell Grant eligibility will be restored to its 1994 levels.
As evidence of the effectiveness, Michael’s cohort graduated with the highest collective GPA in the history of their college. Alumni of the program boast a zero-percent recidivism rate.
“From an early age, many of us were told we came from nothing, and we would never be able to achieve anything,” Michael told his fellow graduates in his commencement address. “We are repeatedly told convicted felons will always struggle and will never be able to achieve the American Dream. Yet, despite this, there are already businesses and nonprofit organizations that have been birthed from this program, with many more in the planning stages.”