(artwork by Brian Bragg)
The typical Second Chance Month is a flood of images and stories about people who have emerged from jail and prison with a success story. Entering my second year at JSTOR Access in Prison, I thought we could do more to connect people on the outside to the experiences of people living inside carceral facilities. The people most affected by Second Chance Month initiatives are the people whose stories aren’t finished, polished, or readily heard. We decided to ask people affected by the criminal legal system to tell us their thoughts about education and second chances.
Every day in April, JSTOR Access in Prison is releasing a new blog post, written by a person currently or formerly incarcerated. The prompt was intentionally broad to encourage people to engage with the idea of education and second chances in the manner most authentic for them. Some sent essays, some sent research - one submission was a comic strip. Assembling the Second Chance Month collection was as unorthodox as the notion itself.
Aside from help from ITHAKA operations and the editors of American Prison Newspapers to sort and scan the postal mail submissions, I alone made the decisions about which texts to feature from the 302 submissions. Initially, I thought dividing the submissions and farming them out would be efficient and simple. The strategy changed when I read a handwritten submission from a young woman, “Rondessa.” I noticed the return address on the envelope matched the name affixed to a second submission inside. Rondessa’s essay tucked into someone else’s envelope placed both people at significant risk for disciplinary action. If caught, they could be sent to solitary confinement. Even the most thoughtful reader may not have caught that detail, but it suggests a great deal about both women. They probably are friends, are accustomed to sharing resources, and the danger of getting caught was worth an opportunity to be heard. A decade ago I gambled with that calculation myself and lost. I spent 90 days in solitary confinement for the infraction.
The people I work with across all divisions of ITHAKA have been eager to read the submissions and sort through them with me. Rondessa’s essay taught me that nuance would be lost in favor of efficiency. She and her friend were willing to risk what little freedom they had to share their frustrations about education with us. I reread their essays with this perspective and extracted new meaning. Each writer sacrificed something to connect with us, and I realized that only a person with lived experience of incarceration could catch these nuances. I resolved to linger over the stories told alongside the printed narrative in every letter, article, essay and poem in the growing pile. Envelopes, prepaid email accounts, third party submissions, and even the type of pen told me about the writer’s circumstances before I read a single word.
The crooked margins and slanted rows of a typewritten letter stirred memories of hours I spent in the Law Library, furiously pounding on the keys in the time allotted. Just getting to the Law Library is a process: sending a request, waiting for approval, being placed on a schedule, then hoping movement isn’t stopped during the assigned time. Locating a working typewriter is the next challenge, followed by waiting for an officer to bring paper. Officers sometimes review what is typed, and anything not related to legal work is subject to confiscation in many prisons. If a person has their own typewriter, there is time to straighten the paper.
I noticed patterns, too. For instance, every electronic submission came from men, with a few typewritten and even fewer in pen and ink. All submissions from women were delivered via postal mail. Younger writers infused their work with indignation, and those with life sentences tended to struggle with meaning and purpose. Most were drawn to education in search of redemption of one kind or another.
As you journey through these works, I ask only that you suspend judgment on syntax, grammar, and structure. Dare to sit inside these lines with the authors. Consider their education before, during and after imprisonment. These uncensored, unedited, and original works are an invitation to experience Second Chance Month from a different and vital perspective. Real or chosen names are printed where permission was granted. Check here daily for a new installment of humility, grace, bravery, resilience or hope throughout the month.
Thank you for listening.