Many of the people Christopher Lay tutored have gone on to college, as he stayed behind in a 50-square-foot cell.
His classroom is set behind the razor wire and electrified fences that surround Dick Conner Correctional Center. Lay, 34, has been tutoring there for about a decade and he says he has helped more than 300 inmates acquire their general equivalency diploma.
“That’s a great source of comfort for me,” Lay said. “The academic habit stuck with them, and they want to understand more.”
Lay is serving life without parole for the May 2004 murder of Kenneth Anderson, 36. His father is on death row for the same crime.
Lay, who earned his bachelor’s degree in June, elected to study sociology, in part, to better understand the motivations and circumstances of his own situation.
He earned his degree through classes at Langston University and Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado.
“I didn’t understand it when it happened,” he said, referring to the events that led him to where he is today. “ ‘Life without’ is a phrase that’s uttered, but it has to be felt, and I didn’t feel it for a while.”
Kenneth Anderson was a security guard in May 2004 at the MidFirst Bank at 7050 S. Yale Ave. when two masked men, armed with guns, walked in and ordered employees to the floor. It was a takeover-style robbery disrupted by Anderson. Lay and his father, Wade Lay, shot and killed Anderson, fleeing from the bank with Anderson’s firearm and no cash.
The two Lays were shot multiple times during the botched robbery, and Lay went to his mother with blood-covered clothing.
Her son did not tell her who fired the fatal shot, Lay’s mother testified in 2004. He “was crying and upset” but did not want to go to the hospital. “He said he didn’t want to go to jail,” and he was repeatedly praying, “God, forgive me,” she said.
Kim Tryon, Anderson’s sister, said her brother stood a little more than 5 feet tall but that what he may have lacked in size he made up for with bravery. Anderson had worked as a security guard for more than a decade before he was killed.
Tryon said she and her sister both feel Lay’s efforts to redeem himself have been a waste of time.
She said Lay would be unable to utilize the degree he’s earned because he will be in prison for life. He was also sentenced to 25 years in prison for the attempted robbery, to be served consecutive with his life sentence.
“It’s hard to explain to a 6-year-old why your grandfather isn’t here,” Tryon said. “If he wanted to do something this good, he could have done it before he killed my brother.”
Investigators recovered anti-government literature from the Lays’ apartment about events at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas. Prosecutors at the time said the two men were “operating outside of reality” and had a “self-proclaimed mission to (avenge) Waco.”
The younger Lay said he was taught reading, writing and some arithmetic, but as far as formal education, he had only a few months of sixth grade to his name when he was incarcerated.
He lived a cloistered life with his father, “living his view and his vision, which was a perverse one,” he said.
“The country was broken,” Lay said he was taught by his father, and the robbery at MidFirst Bank would be part of the means to the end “to fix it.”
During their trial, the Lays acknowledged they had compiled a list of people they thought responsible for the Branch Davidian deaths where a fire erupted in Waco after a 51-day standoff with law enforcement agents and federal officials. Prosecutors asserted that the Lays needed the money in order to kill people who they thought participated in, or covered up, what happened in Waco.
“The things that I had been taught historically, philosophically, those things were just flat wrong, and I had to encounter those things for myself,” he said. “I had to see them written and deal with the conflict that brought to mind.”
Lay and his father were quickly convicted by a jury in 2005 of first-degree murder and attempted robbery.
“I know how I feel guilty. I don’t merely feel guilty for the act itself, but for all the things I took from the people who care about him,” Lay said.
Lay said he is trying to live out an apology to Anderson and his family through tutoring and teaching in the prison.
While incarcerated, he acquired his general equivalency diploma. He devoured books sent to him by his aunt, and he worked piecemeal on his degree. It took more than a decade because his family could only sparingly help him with the cost.
Lay did not qualify for the Second Chance Pell pilot program, a program that provides grants for prisoners to obtain an education. All the funding for his education was private. In June, Lay celebrated his graduation as the only prisoner there to earn a four-year degree.
Tulsa Community College has offered educational courses at the prison since 2007 in a joint partnership that also now includes Langston University and the Department of Corrections. However, inmates’ access has been limited by their ability to pay tuition and fees. Until the pilot program, only grants and scholarships funded through private donations were available.
Lay said his degree lends credibility to his tutoring efforts and he works with students, fellow inmates, to understand how an education can help them outside of prison.
“Someone that comes to understand that he is part of a network of people and not just this independent thing that lives his life for himself, there is no end to the ripple effects of that for his family, for his employers for the people he encounters in the community,” he said.
The recidivism rate for those who don’t receive a post-secondary education while incarcerated is about 1 in 4, TCC President Leigh Goodson said in June. For those who receive that education, she said, about 1 in 20 re-offend.
“Prison education creates safer communities by reducing recidivism rates,” Goodson said in June. “It is clear that postsecondary education for students in prison is a very valuable investment.”
A Rand Corp. study from 2013 found that inmates who participated in correctional education were 43% less likely to return to prison within three years than inmates who did not participate in any educational programs, according to a 2016 Department of Education news release.
Tulsa Police Sgt. Jennifer Murphy talks about the Tulsa Police new reading program and school supply handout at the Darlington Apartments.