Even though social mobility remains at a depressing low in America, industrious individuals, even here at Stanford, have undercut the recent media narrative and bucked the elitist trend in American Higher Education. One such individual is Jason Spyres, a 37 year-old transfer student studying computer science, who has been featured widely in Illinois press regarding criminal justice reform. I sat down with him to learn more about his unusual journey to Stanford.
In 1998, Spyres, then a high-school student in Red Bluff, California, was planning his seventeenth birthday party. He wanted to celebrate with some alcohol or cannabis, but couldn’t convince anyone with a license to buy him beer, so his friend suggested a pot dealer to him. Spyres paid $35 for a half ounce of “brick weed,” a low-grade cannabis that comes in highly-compressed packets usually along with the seeds and stems. When he went to school the next day, classmates pestered him to share his stash, offering their cash in return for a small piece. Spyres was chuffed; he made a $5 profit without even trying and still had enough left for the party.
However innocent the circumstances were, this incident paved the way for Spyres’ future drug dealings. He told me, as we sat in Old Union, “the excuse I gave to myself was to help the people I already knew get pot, and it just took off from there drastically.” Selling marijuana was a crime under California law at the time, and it remains a state misdemeanor for suppliers without a license since the state legalized recreational use in 2016.
During Spyres’ last year of high school, which he spent on an independent study working at a fast food store to help his mother pay bills, he smuggled cannabis through the drive-way to his pot-smoking friends. Once he graduated, he moved to Illinois (where his father’s side of the family lived) and set up an illegal marijuana business in the city of Decatur. “I became a fully-fledged cannabis dealer,” Spyres said. A friend helped him ship marijuana across the states by wrapping the stash in electrical tape and mailing it through UPS. Spyres – who rarely smoked pot himself – sold the marijuana to a handful of customers he considered trustworthy, making $30,000 to $40,000 a month. He used the money to pay bills, support his family, and grow his drug-dealing business.
To justify his criminal behaviour, he told himself that though selling pot was illegal, it wasn’t immoral. This theory came crashing down when two gangs broke into his house, split his head open, and robbed him. When Spyres discovered that the burglars had nearly mistaken his house for his neighbor’s, he realized that selling drugs put other people’s safety in jeopardy. “I was shocked and sickened with myself,” he recalled. “I was part of a black market and my actions had unintended consequences.”
I asked him whether he was afraid of getting caught by the police. “Only a fool would think he would never get caught,” Spyres said. “I knew I would get caught.” In Illinois, the sale and recreational use of marijuana was, and remains, a criminal offense. Spyres assumed he would face a light punishment if he were arrested. For the money he was making selling marijuana illegally, he said he would gladly endure a prison boot camp for first-time offenders or, assuming the worst, a year in jail.
The fateful day came in June 2001 when Californian law enforcement alerted police in Illinois about a package of marijuana they had intercepted that was addressed to a Decatur residence. Police hid a transmitting device inside the package and sent an undercover officer posing as a delivery man to Spyres’ home. They arrested the 19-year-old and, to his great shock, sentenced him to 30 years in prison and over $200,000 in fines.
During the war on drugs, when Congress classified marijuana as among the most dangerous and addictive drugs, lawmakers in several states upgraded their drug sentencing policy. As a result, Illinois classifies the possession of 5,000 grams of cannabis with intent to deliver a “Class X” offence, short of first-degree murder. Class X offenders can face six to 30 years in prison and are deemed “heinous.” When Spyres got to prison, he was unable to participate in good-time programs such as college-level classes and incentive schemes, even though he had committed a non-violent crime.
As law enforcers turned their back on his rehabilitation, Spyres took it upon himself to get an education. He borrowed books from the prison library and wrote to colleges asking for used textbooks. With ample time to himself, he spent hours poring over the books in his cell. “I would just dismantle them, reading every single word, every single page, and doing every single exercise book,” Spyres said, recalling his molecular chemistry notes that stood higher than his one-thousand page textbook.
The budding student enrolled at a community college, where he maintained a perfect GPA tackling subjects like physics and organic chemistry, and found jobs at an Irish pub and pizza restaurant through his prison’s work-release program. The owners of both businesses quickly promoted Spyres to Operations Manager once they noticed his sense of drive and business mindset.
After serving 15 years at the Taylorville Correctional Center, Spyres was released early for non-violent conduct. Out of prison, he advocated for criminal justice reform, helping inmates with drug offences secure employment, and worked on a Libertarian candidate’s campaign for Illinois Governor. He continued to ace his classes at community college, and decided to transfer schools.
Stanford waitlisted him, but true to his dogged nature, Spyres didn’t give up. A recruiter from the admissions office, was scheduled to appear at a Chicago Marriott along with representatives from other universities to meet prospective students, so Spyres “tracked her down.” He arrived three hours early to the event and discovered the admissions officer, Abby Jones, sitting in the hotel lobby. He walked up to her and introduced himself, expressing his gratitude for being placed on the waitlist.
When Jones asked if there was anything else Spyres wanted to say, he replied: “You know, I’m not arrogant enough to say that I am better or smarter than any of the other applicants on your waitlist, but what I do know is that I want it more,” Spyres said, retelling their conversation. “I have been waiting to get into Stanford for 10 years and I have made sacrifices to get here. If you say yes, I will be there.”
A few weeks later, while Spyres was driving, he received an email saying that his application status had been updated. “I saw the word ‘congratulations’ and jumped out of my car and started running through the parking lot,” he said, beaming. “It was just absolute bliss.”
In his first year on The Farm, Spyres has taken classes in computer science and economics, skills he hopes to transfer to the business world upon graduating, and become President of the Stanford Libertarians. While he came to Stanford on a full-ride scholarship, he didn’t start college free of debt. As a result of his prison sentence, he has accumulated over $260,000 in unpaid fines and debt-collector fees.
Last August, Spyres applied for a gubernatorial pardon to remove the criminal conviction from his record and relieve him of the burdensome debt. His case looks promising, as Democratic lawmakers in Illinois are preparing a bill to legalize marijuana that could be passed in the coming days and the Governor of Illinois J.B. Pritzker has promised to review the sentences of people incarcerated for marijuana offenses. Influential law enforcement officials have rallied to Spyres’ side, including Brian Asbell, the county sheriff for Peoria, Illinois. “If there was a poster child for reform or a pardon – someone who is deserving and has worked and proven that he has paid his debt to society – I think Jason is that poster [child],” Asbell said during an interview for Illinois Policy Institute.
When I asked Spyres in our most recent conversation what he thought about the college admissions scandal, he replied that the families who tried to buy their way into Stanford through bribery and forgery misunderstood the true values of our community: integrity and intellectual vitality. Stanford has been embroiled in the Rick Singer scandal again — with news that a Chinese family paid $6.5 million to get their daughter into The Farm — but for Spyres the University still serves as a tool for social mobility.
“I was admitted for the person I am and not the money I have,” he said. “I applaud Stanford, I really do, for letting me shut the door on my past and move on in my life.”