From jail to Yale: Humanities Week keynote speaker to focus on prison education as a humanizing force
October 6, 2023
A charismatic and passionate speaker, George Chochos will deliver the keynote address for Virginia Tech Humanities Week Oct. 25 at 6 p.m. at Haymarket Theater in Squires Student Center. The free event is open to the Virginia Tech community and general public. Register to attend in-person or online through the Humanities Week homepage. Humanities Week is hosted by the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities and the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
Nearly 12 years after entering prison, George Chochos emerged with a renewed sense of purpose — and four college degrees.
Chochos struggled with trauma and addiction throughout his 20s. After several stints in jail, a string of bank robberies led to his felony conviction and lengthy prison sentence in New York.
About a year into his sentence, Chochos vowed to walk a new path through education. He learned about a competitive prison education program called the Bard Prison Initiative. From a pool of 150 applicants, only 15 were granted admission to the program.
Chochos secured one of the coveted spots.
The program began with grammar, writing, introductory logic, and formal-informal reasoning classes. Within a few years, Chochos had turned his focus to urban economics and sociology research, engaged with prolific scholars, and learned how to critique theory.
By 2010, Chochos had earned an associates and two bachelor's degrees. He then completed his master's degree in Urban Ministry from New York Theology Seminary after receiving high marks on his 162-page thesis.
Following his release from prison, Chochos gained acceptance to Yale Divinity School. He graduated with a second master's degree in the humanities in 2016.
Chochos is now a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University. He's also a senior program associate with the social justice organization Vera Institute, where he supports college-in-prison programs. He joined the institute in 2020 as a senior federal policy associate to work on Pell reinstatement for incarcerated students.
The Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and the Center for Humanities welcome Chochos as keynote speaker for Humanities Week. Chochos's involvement in prison education initiatives aligns with efforts by the Center for Humanities to help expand educational opportunities in the prison system.
In advance of his visit to Blacksburg, Chochos answered five questions about his life and mission.
You describe yourself as a system-impacted scholar and practitioner. You’re also committed to advancing prison and criminal legal system reform and advocacy. Can you share a turning point in your life that crystallized your passion for this work?
While incarcerated, my faith conversion and educational journey began.
When I entered Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York State, I was told there were no college programs. But in the first year of my 14-year sentence, I accidentally walked into a classroom and found out there was a master's program available. I met the graduate students and their brilliance drew me in. I started to see a different life was possible, even in prison. From there I went to Eastern [Correctional Facility] and was one of 15 people accepted into Bard College through the Bard Prison Initiative.
Through my education, I found the will to dream while living in a nightmare.
How did your humanities education within the prison system help to transform your life?
Studying the humanities opened up a window into the world that I never knew existed and it allowed me to envision a once seemingly impossible future.
In your role with the Vera Institute of Justice, you provide assistance to college-in-prison programs. What do you find rewarding about your work?
When I look into the eyes of the men and women in prison, whether at a graduation or a site visit, I see hope.
One example: After I spoke at Eastern Correctional Facility, I received a letter from one of the men in the program who wasn’t planning on attending the meeting I was participating in. He told me he was about to give up because of how many years he had in prison ahead of him. He said he was so glad he came because it gave him hope to not give up but move forward.
You’ve earned a variety of degrees throughout your educational journey and are currently a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University. How has your continued pursuit of education helped shape your career and personal life?
I used my role as a student in prison as a way to engage the world. When I entered Yale, the classroom felt just like any other classroom I had been in — in or out of prison. Continuing my education helped me re-enter society in a way that allowed me to be in a space I understood and feel comfortable in. The classroom made being in a strange new world eerily familiar and safe.
Your work in the field of prison education is insightful and inspiring. What is one key thing you hope the Virginia Tech community and the public will take away from your keynote address?
Humanities in education is humanization. It is mitigating against the dehumanizing process of "inmate-ization."
Written by Andrew G Adkins