A North Carolina death row inmate has filed a grievance with the state Department of Public Safety after he was denied the opportunity to finish a privately funded bachelor’s degree program.

Lyle May filed the 10-page handwritten letter last month after staffers at Central Prison in Raleigh abruptly told him that he would no longer have access to the correspondence courses, which he had paid for with private funds and scholarships.

Public safety spokesman John Bull told the INDY this week that the policy forbidding death row inmates from enrolling in any type of educational program went into effect more than 20 years ago.

“This has not been recently discontinued,” Bull wrote in an email to the INDY, adding that correspondence courses for such inmates “was phased out beginning in 1997 and entirely eliminated in 2000.”

The ban was implemented under former state director of prisons James French.

“This prohibition applies to all correspondence courses,” French stated in a March 2000 letter concerning the ban, “regardless if the correspondence course is paid by the Division of Prisons, the inmate, a third party, or for courses provided at no cost.”

Bull elaborated on the policy in his email to the INDY. 

“Prisons have limited educational resources, and educational staff, and they are focused on helping offenders prepare themselves through educational opportunities to succeed when they complete their sentences and return to their communities,” Bull wrote. “This is not something anticipated for offenders who have been sentenced to death by the judicial system.”

All may not be lost for people on death row like May, who want to expand their world beyond the walls of death row.

Bull said public safety officials are working on “a plan to implement something like this for offenders on death row. We are not prepared at this point to make any changes, but it is under active review.”

Gretchen Engel, executive director of The Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, told the INDY she had not read May’s grievance but that she was familiar with the case. She called it “concerning” and “sad.”

“For one thing, everybody is obviously more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” Engel said. “The idea that people on death row can’t redeem themselves and change is false. I’ve seen them grow, change, take responsibility and help other people. It’s offensive to the idea of human dignity.”

A petition on May’s behalf—“Stop North Carolina from Depriving People on Death Row of Their Educations”—was created Monday on Change.org.

The petition notes that in addition to being denied access to higher education, death row prisoners are also banned from pursuing GEDs and rehabilitative programs.

The petition calls on Todd Ishee, the state’s commissioner of prisons, and Tim Moose, the department’s chief deputy secretary, to immediately reinstate educational opportunities for all people on death row and to put a policy in place that ensures their access to higher learning is not blocked in the future.

“It is fundamentally unjust to deny a certain class of people their access to education based on the severity of the sentence,” states the petition, which had been signed by more than 100 people as of Thursday morning.

May, 43, was sentenced to death in 1999 at the age of 21 for the beating and stabbing of a 24-year-old woman and her four-year-old son in Buncombe County. His life on death row was chronicled last year in the INDY

May was enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program at Ohio University prior to his access being terminated. He also earned his associate’s degree from a Ohio University correspondence program in 2013, according to the petition.

May has also become a prolific journalist while behind bars, where he has managed to have stories and articles published by Scalawag Magazine, Inside Higher Education, and The Marshall Project.

It’s unclear why a policy prohibiting educational access for people on death row has been largely unenforced until recently. Ishee, the commissioner, and Moose, the deputy chief, were both appointed in June 2019, however. 

In his letter, May said that over the past 17 years “with one exception, every warden and associate warden of programs supported death row prisoners pursuing higher education.” 

He notes that “numerous program staff have indeed facilitated these correspondence courses by signing course registration forms, receiving and delivering course materials, and proctoring exams for two people three to four times a year for a few hours. These are the only tasks ever asked of program staff, who otherwise provide nothing for death row.”

Engel thinks it may be a case of a new warden setting new rules.

“I would hope that officials at the department of public safety and those at the cabinet level would see the value,” she said.

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.