Jurisprudence

The Department of Corrections Couldn’t Stop This Lifer From Winning a Pulitzer Prize—It Tried

A sign that reads: "Entrance State Correctional Institute Grateford in picketed yellow fencing.
Graterford Prison, where “Suave” was incarcerated, on July 20, 2001. Mike Levin/Getty Images

David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole when he was 17. In many states—including Pennsylvania, where Gonzalez was sentenced—there are few, if any, college opportunities for people with such lengthy sentences.

Still, Gonzalez eventually fought his way into Villanova University’s privately funded college program at Graterford Prison, the maximum security facility where he was incarcerated. There he earned a bachelor’s in education and marketing.

While incarcerated, Gonzalez developed a decades-long friendship with journalist Maria Hinojosa. The two would later work together to document his time in prison and subsequent release, in 2017 after a Supreme Court decision that ruled automatic life sentences without parole for juveniles as unconstitutional, in an eponymous podcast, Suave, which won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize.

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Now, Gonzalez is a support coach with I Am More, a reentry program for formerly incarcerated students at Philadelphia Community College. He also co-hosts Death by Incarceration, which will be featuring episodes this fall focused on the various ways people in prison get an education.

In August, journalist Rahsaan “New York” Thomas called Gonzalez from a phone booth on the ground tier of San Quentin’s North Block. Thomas, who was sentenced to 55-years-to-life in California, is the inside host of the Pulitzer-nominated podcast Ear Hustle. Like Gonzalez, Thomas was able to earn a degree behind bars, which was one of the factors cited in the commutation he received from California Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this year. At the end of September, Thomas got word that he is suitable for parole following Newsom’s clemency and he expects to go home sometime in early 2023.

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Thomas and Gonzalez talk about fighting the system and the role of education in prison when you think you’re never getting out.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Rahsaan “New York” Thomas: What was the highest level of education you completed on the streets? 

David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez: Tenth grade. I didn’t even know how to read, bro.

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So when did you start going to college? How did that happen? 

I went to college really like 25 years ago. I fought a guard so they put me in solitary confinement. I spent seven years there and in them seven years, another gentleman showed me how to read and write. And I told him, “When I get out, l’mma get my GED.” Then I got out of the hole [and] I took my GED. I tried eight times before I passed it.

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Then one day, I’m walking down the hallway and one of the guards asked me to interpret for another Latino guy. So I did and I looked over and seen a class. It’s nothing but white guys in there. I asked the teacher, “What the heck is going on in there, a Klan meeting?” She was like “Nah, it’s a college program.”

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I said, “I want to be part of that.” So when I went in, everybody looking at me like I was crazy-like, “here comes this troublemaker.” So I signed [in 1998] up. But what I didn’t know was that the college program was only part-time studies. If you in it, you in it for the long run. What takes four years out here, might take 16 years in there because they come in once a year….That’s why it took so long to get a bachelor’s degree.

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You had life without parole. What gave you the motivation even to keep breathing, bro? Like to keep doing anything positive, even think about education. Like, if you never go home, what does that matter? 

When you start getting educated in prison, you start seeing yourself in a different light. So I started visualizing and putting myself in places that I’d never been before. I like to say, I found a new habit. And that new habit was education.

Did you hope that education would lead to finding you a way home? 

I wasn’t even thinking about it. Education was just another tool to fight the system. Instead of punching a guard in the face, I put that lawsuit in and make them pay. That’s the way I was thinking because in PA, life without parole, means till you die. So to me, education was about fighting the system and changing the law.

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The only way you’re going to fight the system is if you know how to write the grievance, if you know how to file them pro se lawsuits. In order to be able to do that, you gotta’ be educated to some extent. You got to know how to read and write. So that’s what I did. I began reading every law book, I began learning their system, to the point where I could memorize all of the rules and regulations and pinpoint when they was violating my rights.

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I heard in Pennsylvania prisons, if you’re a lifer, they ain’t trying to let you go to college, right? 

That’s true, but it’s also bullshit because I was a lifer and I did it. You know the same way we grind when we hustlin’ on the corners, the same way you gotta’ hustle when you in the prison system. They told me I couldn’t get a degree, and I left there with two degrees.

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You have to say, “you know what, I got nothing to lose and everything to gain. I’m gonna’ get my degree by any means necessary.” And what that means is start saving your pennies, start taking them correspondence courses, start accumulating them credits, and get that degree. If you wait for the DOC to give you permission to do it, it’s never gonna’ get done.

We had to fight DOC to create programs in order for us to have one chance to get in one class. And that’s what we did: “I’m gonna’ create a program for y’all and y’all gonna’ let me in that program.”

I never had a program that DOC gave me. Every program that I took, we created. When I say we, I’m talking about lifers.

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I definitely respect that but the average person is not mentally strong enough to face a life sentence and then have more obstacles than opportunities and still become something. So like, wouldn’t it have been easier if the system allowed colleges to flourish in all their prisons? 

l mean, of course it would have been easier, but guess what? The DOC is not there to make it easy for us, bro. So that’s where me and you gonna’ disagree at, some dude saying, “the DOC didn’t let me in,” is some bullshit because when your back is against the wall, you got to make a decision: “Do I want this education? Or do I want this jailhouse shit?” I decided I don’t get nothing from stabbing people up. l’mma’ try something new because I tried everything else and I failed. I failed drug dealing. I failed trying to take people’s commissary. I failed miserably in going to the hole for fuckin’ guards up. I failed all that shit. The only thing I succeeded at in prison was in getting an education.

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Those incarcerated serving life and long terms, we gotta’ get out the mindset that we need permission from the DOC. You do not need permission to get an education or to educate yourself. You can do that on your own. I can send you a list with hundreds of schools that will offer you correspondence courses for free.

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[W]hen you decide you want to do something different and good, obstacles are gonna stand in your way, how you deal with that is up to you. Me, I say, fuck this jail shit. I’m getting out of jail, and when I mean getting out, I mean mentally.

And there’s no excuse. I’m not gonna’ say I got a life sentence, so I can’t go to school. If you ain’t gonna let me in school, I’mma’ find a job in the educational building where I’ll be around that stuff and sooner or later, one of y’all gonna’ let me in.

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How big of a difference would it make if institutions across the country really put a focus on education? 

Education in prison would reduce the number of incidents, meaning violence because when you are enrolled in an educational program, your focus is getting that degree. Your focus is not nonsense no more. That means I can’t go to the hole because if I go to the hole, I’m gonna’ lose my slot in the program. At the same time, people knew who I was in the jail—I was a …renegade. I ran the Latino organization with like 300 people. So I was able to encourage them to go to school. I saw some of the hardest dudes in the jail walking down the corridor with school books, because they want to go to school. That’s what education does—all it takes is one cool motherfucker to walk down that school building for everybody else to think that it’s cool to enroll.

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I wanna talk to you about the Pulitzer prize, bro. Like, that’s big, man.

I mean, listen, I put it like this: our struggle and our journey in the prison system prepare us for this. We are ghetto or urban journalists, whatever they want to call us.

This is what we do. We’ve been through this journey. So winning that prize means that our issues are in the frontline right next…. And to be the first formerly incarcerated person and the first juvenile lifer to really knock that off, man, listen, it’s a blessing.

Yeah, definitely, definitely, definitely. I know like all these publications publishing my story, the fact that you won that Pulitzer and Ear Hustle was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2020, it means that people wanna’ hear our stories. It has a value and people care. 

America is infatuated with prisons and incarceration. They [are] infatuated with this, man. This is like cherry pie to them. Like they think that they could incarcerate the way out of every problem in America and they can’t.

I will say this, that when you do give one of us a chance to shine, this is what you get. I’m serious, bro, who would’ve thought that a juvenile lifer [who] learned how to read and write in prison, went to prison with an IQ of 56, would one day win the Pulitzer Award and the IDA award, which is like the Oscar of podcasts? … I guarantee you nobody saw that coming, bro.

To hear the entire conversation between Rahsaan “New York” Thomas and Suave Gonzalez, check out this new episode from Death by Incarceration.

Rahsaan “New York” Thomas reported this story for Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education. Open Campus national reporter Charlotte West contributed to this story. Follow her on Twitter and sign up for her newsletter, College Inside, on the future of postsecondary education in prison. 

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