Stories from Prison

March 4, 2014—Before her Prison Literature class began on a recent Wednesday, Associate English Professor Patricia O’Connor introduced the special guests sitting before her students.

“They’re my squad,” she told the class as she presented Elvin Johnson, Ricky Bryant, and William Lawson.

The men were also her former students, but at a very different institution. The trio had all been inmates at one time or another at the now-shuttered District of Columbia correctional facility in Lorton, Virginia. All had served decades in prison for a variety of offenses, mostly stemming from drug and alcohol abuse.

Before the men met O’Connor, who is also founder of Georgetown’s Prison Outreach Program, they had hardly written a page of text. The men were all products of the DC Public Schools system during their formative years in the 1970s and 1980s. The school district was not only plagued by a lack of resources and management, but it was also struggling with ongoing issues of race and poverty. Back then, you merely had to show up to pass, and sometimes you didn’t even have to do that.

But after taking classes with O’Connor at Lorton, the men saw a change in themselves. This time, they wanted to learn. They weren’t focused on hustling or doing drugs. They were focused on thesis statements, sentence construction, and basic composition.

“Once we began to learn and read, it was so exciting. It was a shift in direction, and I really enjoyed learning,” Johnson told the class.

This year marks the Prison Outreach Program’s 30th anniversary. And Johnson, Bryant, and Lawson are living proof of its power to transform.

O’Connor, whose academic expertise is in the narratives of violence, began teaching Prison Literature at Georgetown a couple years after the Prison Outreach Program got off the ground. She saw the class as a bridge between the real world of the prison and the university.

“I feel like the work we do in the classroom should never be disconnected from the work [the students] will do for the rest of their lives,” O’Connor said. The class has evolved over the years from the time O’Connor first began teaching it, but it has always had at its center a focus on the prison experience as told by the people living it.

According to O’Connor, students’ interaction with current or former inmates is crucial to their understanding of what they are studying. Over the years, her students have taken classes alongside inmates at Lorton and the two groups have critiqued each other’s work. O’Connor’s students have also served as tutors to prisoners like Johnson, Bryant, and Lawson.

Getting a university to come inside the prison and teach inmates was a tough sell, Johnson told the class. But, O’Connor says, it was ultimately the inmates’ persistence that got Georgetown inside the prison walls.

While the Lorton inmates contacted all the universities in the DC area to invite them to come and teach inside the facility, only Georgetown responded. Soon, the partnership between the two institutions was changing prisoners’ lives, and probably some students’ as well.

“The most gratifying thing I ever laid eyes on was a woman who was determined to have me learn,” Johnson said about O’Connor. “The cellblocks changed because we all started talking about school.”

Bryant told the class that even though he signed up to take the prison outreach classes with O’Connor, none of his fellow inmates thought he would make it. He was a hardened troublemaker who had done more than three decades of jail time.

“But I always wanted to learn. I surprised them because I was one of the most determined to learn,” he said.

For Lawson, the fact that a school like Georgetown would venture into Lorton was inconceivable, especially given that all the other colleges they had reached out to had turned them down. That’s why he considers O’Connor to be an “angel.”

“She came through when the need was so great. A lot of us were functioning at our lower selves,” Lawson said.

Lawson felt so strongly about his prison outreach classes that he would do anything to prevent them from being disrupted. He once spent six months in solitary confinement after trying to stop a fellow inmate from “screwing up” a Georgetown visit.

O’Connor’s Prison Literature class is composed of students of all stripes, including many like Laura Higbee (C’15), who are also prison outreach volunteers. The experience of working in local prisons, as well as what she’s learning in O’Connor’s class, is helping inform Higbee about the real state of American prisons.

Higbee, an American studies major, says she took the class after spending last summer interning at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee. Ultimately, she wants to go to law school and seeing the system from all angles—including the perspectives of current and former inmates—is critical.

“I think it’s so important to gain perspective from the other side of the criminal justice system,” Higbee said.

—Lauren Ober