Twenty years in prison drove Roderick “Rudy” Bankston to the dictionary, unlocking a lifelong passion for words

"Two words in particular have never escaped my memory: causability and plausibility. They sounded complex and created in me a deep awareness of my ignorance."
Rudy Bankston looking off to the distance with a book in front of him
Rudy Bankston wrote a guest column for Madison Magazine. (August 2021)
Photo by Paulius Musteikis

In 1995, at the age of 18, I was arrested and booked into the Milwaukee County Jail on charges of first-degree intentional homicide, party to the crime, and first-degree recklessly endangering the safety, party to the crime. The first case exposed me to a life sentence, the second to five years.

My mother had convinced me to turn myself in, fearful that the police would kill me if I did not. On a rainy Sunday morning, she drove me downtown, and together we stepped into the police station and hugged as a detective walked out to take me into custody. It was Mother’s Day.

Right away, I understood the risk in having a public defender represent me, so I had my family contact one of the leading criminal defense lawyers in Wisconsin at the time. He quickly came to see me in the Milwaukee County Jail and basically reaffirmed my fears: I was in a world of trouble. During our first meeting, the lawyer assured me that he could “beat the case.” He used words that I had never heard before, which intimidated me into blindly believing in his effectiveness. Two words in particular have never escaped my memory: causability and plausibility. They sounded complex and created in me a deep awareness of my ignorance. This drove me right to the dictionary and initiated a love for words that quickly developed into a lifelong passion for learning.

After a year of countless court dates and two trials, one ending in a mistrial, I was convicted and sentenced to life in prison plus five years. Roughly three months shy of my 20th birthday, I arrived at Columbia Correctional Institution. I was depressed and angry and adamant about prevailing on appeal. For this to happen, I had to learn the law, and I couldn’t do that without honing my vocabulary, reading comprehension, focus and discipline. I signed up for school and earned my high school equivalency diploma in months.

Law was complicated and left me feeling overwhelmed. Hearing “jailhouse lawyers” argue and debate in legalese informed me one minute, confused me the next. I needed more education, so I began to read anything and everything nonfiction. I continued to heed the advice that an old-school brother gave me while I was still in the county jail: “Never skip over a word you do not know; always look it up.” I ate through the dictionary and later the thesaurus. Around this time my mother started sending me books by Black authors.

Learning turned more personal and relevant to me once I started getting the BIPOC perspective — and even the white perspective that truly respected Black existence. I grew obsessed with study. I also grappled with a lot of guilt as I realized how disrespectful I had been to the blood-sweat-and-tears sacrifices of my forebears. Learning also served as a productive distraction from the prospect of spending the rest of my life in prison. At the same time, the things that I read inspired me to believe in myself and my future. Reading helped fuel my fight for freedom. Giving up felt treacherous as I read about who we were as a people prior to the transatlantic slave trade. I lost myself in stories of what my ancestors endured and the level of tenacity and resilience and faith it took for them to persevere and progress through such a hellish struggle. The dots began to connect. Growth became a way of coping — healing, a matter of survival. A year into my life sentence that felt like a death sentence, I was abruptly shipped out to Green Bay Correctional Institution.

Rudy Bankston wearing a brewers hat

Photo by Paulius Musteikis

As one year disappeared into the next and then the next, I carried on with my studies. I landed my first prison job as a tutor and committed myself to inspiring others to read and study and grow and heal. I listened to the stories of brothers, shared my own and built bonds. I soon discovered that the young people with the most potential are often the most wounded. I realized that once trust is established and a relationship takes root, the ability to influence is a natural outgrowth. I wanted to infuse every brother I encountered with the value of education. I was absolutely gung-ho about sharing my books and other reading material. A constant bridge between the younger guys and me was hip-hop culture. The conversation would start with talk about the music industry, for instance, and lead to discussions on any number of subjects. Before they knew it, I was sliding them a book or article to read. I always passed down the same advice about looking up every unfamiliar word.

Watching these brothers develop a hunger for knowledge gave me deep satisfaction. Playing a role in stirring, whetting and feeding it, gave me the deepest fulfillment. I felt it my mission to draw as many into the self-education fold as possible. It was my own clandestine act of revolution behind enemy lines.

The perpetual heartbreak during all of this was that many of the guys I built relationships with were stuck with space-age time just like me — young men doing bids that doubled and tripled and quadrupled their ages and some of their expected life spans. Witnessing all that promise buried alive cut through my heart repeatedly. I would often imagine how different their plights could have been had some stubbornly determined adult, teacher or support circle been present to assist them through the dysfunction and trauma and brokenness. What if education had found its rightful place in their appetites before other forms of starvation spoiled it for them?

Rudy Bankston

Photo by Paulius Musteikis

It took me two decades to prevail on appeal. I came home with countless stories living inside of me, countless lessons gained through many relationships built.

My lived experience informed much of my work after I was hired by the Madison Metropolitan School District. Initially I aimed to work with youth, especially the youth who are often underserved by the system. I soon found myself working mainly with educators, facilitating restorative justice spaces, leading and co-leading professional developments, and collaborating within and across central office departments and with schools in order to support social justice and antiracist approaches throughout the district.

I resigned from my role in 2019 and started i am We Coaching & Mentoring LLC. Today I contract with MMSD and other school districts and organizations around the state and beyond. Unpacking race, confronting history in the context of racial harm, co-journeying in diverse settings, and building toward change and healing have inspired and challenged me, broken my heart and heightened my hopes and faith in our diverse and shared humanity. It also continues to reinforce for me that we cannot ignore the reality of ongoing white supremacy oppression in this country. Our complacency is active complicity. We must condemn white supremacy as a mindset, not merely a color. We are all impacted. We are all needed in the struggle to disrupt and dismantle it, within our individual selves and within society and the system(s) that uphold it in both covert and overt ways.

Roderick “Rudy” Bankston is a guest columnist to Madison Magazine. Learn more about Bankston and his work on his website, that says Subscribe with covers of Madison Magazine