Locked away from the outside world, Danny Thomas recently saw a glimmer of hope and redemption in the form of a humanities education.

Thomas, who is serving a single life sentence at River North Correctional Center in Independence, Virginia, is one of 10 inmates who spent four weeks in September writing and reading as part of a new humanities course held at the facility.

The class, taught by Sylvester Johnson, director of the Center of Humanities at Virginia Tech, and designed by a group of Virginia Tech students, is part of a prison education pilot program meant to pave the way for future, for-credit courses at the facility.

Along with providing prisoners a sense of purpose, prison education programs help reduce reoffense rates by preparing inmates for life after prison, according to those who worked on the project.

Johnson made the two-hour trip twice a week in September to teach this literature-focused humanities course at the level-four security state prison.

“It provides students the ability to learn about history, culture, and develop and enhance their written and oral communication skills,” Johnson said of the course. “It shows what a humanities education can do, and it really enhances people and their ability to reflect on different facets of human mind and condition.”

Thomas said through the class, he has learned the value of the humanities, and that redemption is “rooted in the respect for life and the right to life.”

“Oftentimes, incarcerated people live in a constant state of retribution as we're seen as unworthy of compassion or being compassionate,” said Thomas, in an email. “Our lives are forever bound to the crimes we've committed and facing our culpability has been the crucible that forges our character.”

Johnson hopes other Virginia Tech faculty members across departments will join him in his efforts, and that eventually, Virginia Tech will be able to offer those at the prison the opportunity to earn a minor while incarcerated. The Center for Humanities is currently working with the Virginia Department of Corrections to explore offering a for-credit humanities course to incarcerated students at River North Correctional Center sometime in 2023.

Prisons are required to provide general education courses to students who do not have a high school diploma, but Johnson said there is a need to provide more opportunities for people to pursue college-level education.

Prisoners were chosen for his course based on essays that they submitted, explaining why they wanted to participate. During the course, students were given excerpts of books like the classic “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neal Hurston, and asked to write reflection pieces.

Due to limited internet access, they faced challenges that many university students do not. No internet access meant outside research had to be conducted via the prison’s library, and reflection pieces were written during class time, since students had limited access to computers.

“We were thoroughly impressed with the diversity in the literature and Dr. Johnson's willingness to listen to us and challenge the class to think critically about the authors’ perspectives, along with the social and psychological challenges each character faced as they attempted to find meaning in their lives,” Thomas said. “You could see that he truly valued our opinions and never missed an opportunity to push us if he didn't think we were challenging ourselves.”

Johnson said he is thrilled with the students’ engagement.

“The quality of their work is just really rich and high,” Johnson said. “Their analysis of material is very sophisticated. They're very engaged and they really have a lot of reflective capacity to do close readings.”

While the pilot course was only offered to 10 students, Johnson said news of the program has created a wave of excitement throughout the 1,024-inmate capacity prison. Since the trip to Independence isn’t a convenient drive for those living in the New River Valley, Johnson hopes to create speaker-series type courses — meaning multiple instructors could take turns teaching one class in the future.

Also, nine Virginia Tech students involved in the Calhoun Honors Discovery Program worked closely with Johnson to create the prison program, design the course syllabus, and develop virtual lessons that were incorporated into the course. Now, the students are working toward making the program more sustainable, and considering options like partnering with a nonprofit.

The Virginia Tech Calhoun Honors Discovery Program students who worked on the project are, from left, Golder Baah, Jordan Jones, Claudia Budzyn, Julia Gutgesell, Sumaiya Haque, Lindsey Brantley, Mary Chadwick, Javeria Zulfqar, Rocio Hernandez-Cardona. Photo by Kelsey Bartlett for Virginia Tech.

The project started as a capstone project for five of the students during the 2021 school year. Initially, the group wanted to explore the ways technology can reduce reoffense rates. From there, the group expanded its research to include broader themes of prison education.

“Our research revealed that there was a lack of programs [in prisons] by four-year institutions,” said Sumaiya Haque. “We saw that this was a space that really needed Virginia Tech to contribute. We used the opportunity of having the resources of the Calhoun Discovery Program and our network to facilitate this and make it happen.”

Members created assignments that would not only challenge the students intellectually, but provide opportunities for skill-building. Calhoun student Javeria Zulfqar said the course “provides an outlet for students to articulate their thoughts and emotions.”

According to the Virginia Department of Corrections, the state's 23.9 percent reoffense rate remains one of the lowest in the country. A chance at higher education could be the key to further reducing that number, according to the group.

“Prisons are designed to exclude prisoners from society and create that gap on purpose,” said Zulfqar. “We’re trying to help close that gap through education and give them opportunities so that when they do leave prison, they can use that education.”

Virginia Tech is the second four-year university to join the Higher Education Prisons in Virginia Consortium — a group that is primarily comprised of community colleges, Department of Corrections officials, and educators.

Johnson also acknowledges that higher education is expensive — which could partially explain the lack of involvement from four-year institutions. Johnson hopes that new legislation for Pell grants could help address the issue.

Beginning in the 2023 school year, prisoners will be eligible to receive Pell grants valued at nearly $7,000 per year that will not need to be repaid. The new legistlation lifts a ban written in the 1994 crime bill that prohibited people in prison from using federal funding to pay for college courses. 

There are roughly 2 million people in federal and state prisons in the United States, according to data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that researches the broader harm of mass criminalization. 

Detention is the “modern-day civil rights issue of our time,” according to Margaret Breslau, chair of the Coalition for Justice in Blacksburg. Breslau was instrumental to the program’s creation, and often acted as a liaison between Johnson and the Department of Corrections.

“It’s because of the way it [detention] affects —not just individuals and their families — but communities,” Breslau said. “And it takes many forms. People are held in detention in all sorts of ways.”

Breslau also cofounded the Virginia Prison Justice Network, and advocates for prisoners’ human rights. She developed a newsletter that is sent to every prison in Virginia, and includes inmate-reflection pieces.

While one of the main goals of the pilot program is to reduce reoffense rates, Breslau acknowledges that not everyone furthering their education will leave the facility.

“They may have life sentences, but this is still helping them and giving them a purpose and making them feel human,” Breslau said. “And I really insisted that it be for anyone, regardless of the sentence. Because a life in prison doesn’t mean that you don’t have a life.”

Inspired by the huge response to Breslau’s newsletter, Virginia Tech, with Breslau’s help,  launched a journal this past summer called “Unlocked: Art and Experiences from Inside Virginia's Prisons,” which allows inmates to share their experiences through writing.

Douglas Johnson, whose work has been featured in the journal, is currently slated to be released from River North Correctional Center 2082. He said he took the course because he is committed to self-improvement, and vowed not to waste the time he is serving.

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Example of the virtual-lesson component Johnson incorporated throughout the program. 

River North Correctional Center inmates participate in a class taught by Sylvester Johnson, director of the Center for Humanities at Virginia Tech. Photo courtesy Kimberly Phipps.

“One of the greatest things you can do for someone is to show them their true potential,” said Johnson, via email. “This course's reading and writing assignments and our heavily engaged in-depth group discussions have given my class a greater sense of self-awareness and has allowed us to realize our potential is limitless.”

The importance of the course cannot be overstated, he said.

“It is critical that inmates continue to be given the opportunity to further our education, because remaining purpose-driven with a sense of hope can otherwise be difficult to attain in this environment,” he added.

Douglas Johnson plans to take all future course that Virginia Tech may offer at the facility, and said he hopes to pursue an education exploring the connection between mental health neglect of incarcerated persons, and its impact on reoffense rates.

“The ideology of restorative justice is negotiating its way through the state of Virginia, and it will be advocates of the humanities like Dr. [Sylvester] Johnson that will usher in this new era of reconciliation and forgiveness by reminding us that all of humanity has value,” Thomas said.

The following is a poem by Douglas V. Johnson, II. It is inspired by James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," a short story Johnson studied during the prison pilot education course at River North Correctional Center.


Our vices feed on our flesh,
Feeling so deeply immersed.
Drowning, FIGHTING through this test,
Our Dreams and Passions we thirst.

All bottled-up suppressed pain,
My cathartic tunes seep through.
Toxic expectations wane,
Birthing out of these drab Blues.

Although darkness awaits us,
Wasted "TIME" will be refrained.
Turning pain, into PURPOSE,

Story by Kelsey Bartlett