“Life is the art of drawing without an eraser.”
Quoted by John W. Gardner, Educator and Secretary of Health Education and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson.
There were times in life when Hilton Bennett could have used an eraser. But since he could not erase some bad choices in his life, he made the best of a bad situation and turned his future around.
Incarcerated in Lunenburg Correctional Center in Victoria, Virginia, Bennett said that the trials he had in life made him rethink his next steps.
“I could do nothing for the next seven years or I could do something positive,” he said.
Always a good student, he began teaching fellow inmates math, reading and other lessons mainly for something to do. He enjoyed this positive activity and how it helped to pass the time. Soon, he caught the attention of Ann Cavan, Regional Principal of the Department of Corrections School, who found him a job in the prison library and allowed him to tutor other inmates.
Southside Virginia Community College partners with the Virginia Department of Corrections to offer the Campus Within Walls program at the Lunenburg facility. The philosophy of the program is “We believe in the transformative power of education because we see it every day! With a college degree, men leaving prison are more likely to get good jobs and earn more money. Men who earn a degree while in prison are almost 50% less likely to return.”
“Within six months, I was enrolled in classes through SVCC,” Bennett said speaking of the program.
It took about five years to complete his Associate’s degree from SVCC due to the scheduling of needed classes and funding availability. Two years after his release, Bennett was invited to be the speaker at an SVCC Commencement ceremony at the prison.
Before he was incarcerated, he had a job, a house, a family and was prospering in life. He said he realizes now that everything has worked out for the best and that he needed to have the experience of prison to arrive where he is today.
He currently holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Product Innovation from VCU’s da Vinci center. He interns for a Biomedical Engineering firm designing Orthopedic Implants. He plans to start a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and Medicine soon.
In this semester alone, VCU has filed four patents for which he has been the primary engineer on. These include a device that make the epidural space visible to anesthesiologists and a device that effectually treats the second leading cause of preventable deaths in the Military which is Pneumothorax (collapsed lung).
In another collaboration, Bennett and others are working on a device to prevent the loss of guide-wires during surgery.
“If a wire is left behind, he said, “It’s a risky situation for the patient. The patient must undergo an additional procedure to have it removed,” he noted.
Bennett said that the team’s current design, a clip with lights and a buzzer, attaches to the wire to serve as a constant reminder to the physician or clinician that the wire is inside the patient’s body. Over the summer, Bennett is working on designing the mold for the device and developing prototypes out of different materials,” according to Invention Seeks to Prevent Wires from Being Left Inside Patients, which appeared on the VCU College of Engineering’s website on August 9, 2017.
In the article, W. Paul Murphy, M.D., assistant professor in theDepartment of Anesthesiology in the VCU School of Medicine, said working with engineers and others outside his field to solve real-world problems has been an exciting experience.
“To have folks like Hilton and Ben Ward say, ‘If you do it this way, the problem could be avoided,’” he said, “that’s been a blast.”
An avid rock climber, Bennett also started his own company in 2016 designing Traditional Climbing Gear for indoor use.
Recently, Bennett was a guest speaker at Vera Institute of Justice Conference held in Detroit, Michigan. The mission of Vera is “to drive change. To urgently build and improve justice systems that ensure fairness, promote safety, and strengthen communities.”
Surprisingly, Dr. Al Roberts, SVCC President, and Lisa L. Hudson, SVCC Campus Within Walls Coordinator, were both in the audience. And, duly proud of one of the college’s own.
Dr. Anne Hayes, formerly Coordinator of Campus Within Walls at SVCC, said, “completing an associate degree served as a ‘reset button’ for Mr. Bennett. He graduated SVCC with a 4.0.(Grade Point Average)”
Bennett believes education behind bars is key to making it possible for inmates to thrive on the outside. He knows many who went through the SVCC program with him and have made the successful transition since being released.
Not only is Bennett making his life better, his diligence and interest in finding solutions to problems that affect others is a great way for him to continue his pursuit of the positive.