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JMU Professor’s ‘Second Chance Project’ Tells the Stories of Incarcerated College Graduates

James Madison University Professor Sarah O’Connor
James Madison University Professor Sarah O’Connor created a unique course to engage students in the U.S. justice system and the technical demands of creating a podcast.

An average day for a student in Professor O’Connor’s class consists of anything from editing audio interviews for their professor’s podcast to in-class personal poetry readings from former inmates themselves. It’s safe to say this course is far from ordinary.

James Madison University (JMU) Professor, Sarah O’Connor teaches Special Topics: Prison Writing, a course she created, which is now going on its fourth year. In this course, students are educated on America’s prison system and assist in her podcast on the successes of reformed prisoners. When first developing an interest and researching topics surrounding the criminal justice system, O’Connor recalled being “really disturbed at some of the things happening.” 

O’Connor is currently working on a podcast called “The Second Chance Project.” She was inspired to begin working on a project that would reflect stories of people who were formerly incarcerated, and now doing something exceptional in their community. She initially envisioned her project as a book, but she realized, “it makes more sense to let people tell their stories in their own voice. That’s more powerful than if I were to write their stories.” 

She got the idea for the name of the podcast when President Obama spoke on the topic of second chances. He said, "how we treat citizens who make mistakes, pay their debt to society, and deserve a second chance reflects who we are as a people and reveals a lot about our character and commitment to our founding principles." 

Buddy Harrison, a man featured in the podcast, finished an associate’s degree while in prison. Harrison’s story is one of O’Connor’s favorites because after he was released from prison, he started a boxing club to help keep kids off the street. “He said that before he went to prison, everybody knew him because of how bad he was. When he got out, he decided to change his life. Now he’s proud because people know him because of how good he is.”

In anticipation of the upcoming PBS documentary, “College Behind Bars,” O’Connor discussed past podcast interviewees and their experiences with education. She interviewed a man named Lawrence Bartley, who works at the Marshall Project currently. Bartley was convicted of second degree murder at just 17 years old, and imprisoned for 27 years. While Bartley was in prison, he was a part of a class action lawsuit. During his incarceration, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life without parole. But in reality, many inmates would come up for parole and be turned down repeatedly. Even though the law had changed, they weren’t being released. Bartley ended up winning the class action lawsuit, which helped him get released from prison. Bartley got his G.E.D., bachelor’s, and master’s degrees, all while in prison.

 Another man from one of O’Connor’s earlier interviews, Robert Sanchez, also got three degrees while incarcerated. He went on to become a social worker, helping the formerly incarcerated when he got out.  She said, “a lot of people that end up in prison are people who have grown up in very poor circumstances and have not had a good education.” 

O’Connor believes that educational programs in prison are absolutely essential. “We need to have more of them because most of the people that you see who get out and end up doing something really positive with their lives are people who have had an opportunity to get an education in prison.” She indicated that a lot of programs are inconsistent due to gaps and pauses in funding, highlighting the importance of regularly available educational opportunities. “There’s a huge difference in recidivism with people who have gotten any kind of education, even minimal, versus people who haven’t.” In 2014, a Bureau of Justice Statistics studies conducted a 9-year follow-up study of 401,288 released prisoners. Of those, 44% of released prisoners were arrested again at least once, with most returning to crime within a year of being released. The rate of recidivism after completing correctional education through a program like Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) is just 4%, compared to incarcerated individuals without any educational advancement while in prison.

Even though people are talking more about reform these days, the U.S. still has the largest prison population of any country in the world, still have an administration talking about tough-on-crime policies, and have people incarcerated for minor drug offenses, rather than being put in treatment programs. O’Connor says “even though I think public awareness is growing, there’s still a huge need for change.”

In 2016, O’Connor received the JMU Faculty Engagement Grant for $4,000 to create the podcast with the participation of her classes. This grant money was used to create a recording studio within her department, pay for equipment and software, and fund educational trips.

O’Connor believes incorporating the creativity from her students in the creation of the podcast has made a huge difference. “They’ve really helped move it along. From finding people to interview, because there’s a lot of background work that goes into it.” Her students have really helped to share the workload. Students help find photos and transcribe audio, but working on the website is one of their biggest tasks. “The energy and enthusiasm makes it encouraging for me to keep working on it.”

With her prison writing class, O’Connor regularly organizes class visits to tour the nearby Rockingham County Jail. O’Connor is on the board at Gemeinschaft Home, which is a re-entry living facility for formerly incarcerated males in Harrisonburg, where she takes students to tour. She has also taken students on a bus trip to the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland, VA. In terms of teaching, she’s included units on the criminal justice system and the death penalty in a number of other classes as well, including Theory and Methods in WRTC and her freshman writing class. 

She is excited for the College Behind Bars film. O’Connor has known about the Bard Prison Initiative for some time now and is eager to learn more. “College Behind Bars” follows BPI’s correctional higher education program, and the rigorous work incarcerated men and women perform to earn their degrees. The program has been in operation since 1999, and O’Connor realizes its success. “The documentary looks like it’s really well done.”

“The Second Chance Project” website is on track to be published in December. O’Connor hopes to have the entire podcast made public by Spring of 2020. 

“College Behind Bars” premieres on VPM on November 25 at 9 PM.

By Digital Intern Carley Prendergast