From prison to college
Felon beats the odds
Jason Spyres was driving last week when the email arrived: Your Stanford application has been updated.
It’s an improbable story that began in 2001, when a suspicious clerk at a United Parcel Service outlet alerted her supervisor: This package doesn’t look right, and the woman who dropped it off was nervous. California cops forwarded the package to Decatur police, who found 38 pounds of marijuana wrapped in electrical tape.
Spyres, then 19, was the intended recipient. His mother was the sender. She got probation and is now a social worker. Her son got a 30-year sentence. After 14 years in prison, Spyres, now 36, was put on work release in 2016, then paroled.
Spyres has a gift for numbers and math. He aced what college courses were offered via correspondence classes during his prison stint. After his release, he enrolled at Illinois Central College in Peoria, where he maintained a 4.0 GPA while managing a bar that serves pizza but is more video gambling emporium than watering hole. He thought big and dreamed bigger, applying to a bevy of elite colleges: Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia, to name a few. One after another, they said no. “There was no, no, no, no – I got real good at taking it in stride,” Spyres says.
University of Illinois granted admission, Spyres says, but with a catch: Because he was on parole when he applied for admission, he would be on academic probation before he enrolled in his first class and would have to answer “yes” if asked by graduate schools whether he’d ever been on academic probation. That didn’t seem fair. “I sold pot 17 years ago and haven’t done a thing wrong since,” he says.
Stanford University didn’t say yes and didn’t say no, instead placing Spyres on a wait list and asking him to update his application in 500 characters or less. He sent a link to a recent column I wrote (“From pot to prison to politics,” April 12) as well as a link to a clip of Grayson “Kash” Jackson, Libertarian Party candidate for governor, addressing the press – among other things, Spyres is director of field operations for the third-party candidate. Spyres didn’t stop there.
A recruiter from Stanford was scheduled to appear last month at a Chicago Marriott along with representatives from Georgetown, Harvard, Duke and the University of Pennsylvania to meet prospective students. Spyres drove north. “You can’t just tell people you want something,” Spyres says. “You have to show them.”
Fearful of getting stuck in traffic, Spyres says he arrived three hours early. He spotted a woman from the Stanford admissions office in the lobby, working on her laptop. She had inquired about a missing transcript when he first applied, Spyres says, and he recognized her from an online photograph. He walked up and introduced himself.
“She looked up, horrified – she saw some homeless-looking guy in a hoodie,” Spyres recalls. “I’m not going to say she was terrified, but I could tell I shocked her. She said ‘Why are you here?’ I said, ‘You’re the reason I’m here.’”
The conversation lasted between 20 and 30 minutes, Spyres remembers. He says that he told the admissions officer that he was grateful simply for being placed on a wait list. They chatted about Jackson and his time in prison.
Three weeks later, the email arrived. Spyres pulled over at a gas station near Peoria to read it. “I’m looking at it on my phone: ‘Congratulations,’” he recalls. “I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ I jumped out of my car. I’m running around the parking lot at Casey’s, running up to people I never met and will never see again, yelling, ‘I got into Stanford!’”
Spyres is one step ahead of most undergraduates in at least one respect. Already, he has accumulated six figures in debt -- $268,000 in unpaid fines and late-payment fees stemming from his pot conviction – before attending his first class. But Spyres isn’t sweating tuition. Stanford is generous when it comes to financial aid, and for a guy who says he didn’t make $25,000 last year, the award likely will be ample. Spyres figures an on-campus job will be enough to make ends meet.
Macon County state’s attorney Jay Scott, who prosecuted Spyres nearly 20 years ago, doesn’t answer yes or no when asked, if he had the chance, whether he would fight clemency, as he did during a 2010 hearing when he testified against Spyres, who was denied early release. “Hindsight’s always 20-20,” Scott observes. “I can’t answer that. … I believe the sentence he received was appropriate at the time.”
Scott says that Spyres once sent him a letter apologizing for misdeeds. “I hope he succeeds in life,” says the prosecutor who’s spent 31 years sending people to jail. “We do see success stories, people who turn their lives around.
“We don’t want to send people away forever.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at