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Program that Helps Inmates Learn Celebrates 30th Anniversary

Former inmates Elvin Johnson, Ricky Bryant and William Lawson meet with students from Patricia O’Connor’s Prison Literature class.

Former inmates Elvin Johnson, Ricky Bryant and William Lawson meet with students from Patricia O’Connor’s Prison Literature class.

March 10, 2014 – Georgetown’s Prison Outreach Program – which helps inmates at correctional facilities in Arlington and Alexandria, Va. ­– is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

Longtime Georgetown College English professor Patricia O’Connor, whose academic expertise is in narratives of violence, created the program shortly after she began teaching her Prison Literature class at Georgetown.

“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.



Former Inmates Speak

The program helps inmates with one-on-one tutoring and exposes them to a variety of academic disciplines. The class has evolved over the years, but has always focused on the prison experience as told by the people living it, she says.

O’Connor recently brought some former inmates who were also her students to her Georgetown class.

The three men – Elvin Johnson, Ricky Bryant, and William Lawson – had all been inmates at the now-shuttered District of Columbia correctional facility in Lorton, Va., spending decades in prison for crimes mostly stemming from drug and alcohol abuse.

Shift in Direction

Patricia O'Connor smiles against a gray background.

Patricia O'Connor

The products of a school system plagued by a lack of resources and management, ongoing issues of race and poverty, the men hadn’t had much of an education before committing their crimes.

But after taking classes with O’Connor at Lorton, the men were inspired to learn. They became interested in thesis statements, sentence construction and basic composition.

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


Gaining Perspective

Students’ interaction with current or former inmates is crucial to their understanding of prison literature, O’Connor says.

Over the years, her Georgetown students have tutored and also taken classes alongside inmates at Lorton and the two groups have critiqued each other’s work.

“I think it’s so important to gain perspective from the other side of the criminal justice system,” said Laura Higbee (C’15), a prison outreach volunteer.

An American studies major, Higbee took the class after spending last summer interning at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee.