Prison Project looks to change more lives with Mellon grant

By Brian Koonz, MS '20 July 27, 2021

Illustration of a man in prison typing an essay on a computer

A 15-year-old barefoot runaway, Amber Kelly walked along State Road A1A, a scenic ribbon that chases coastal Florida. It was 2 a.m. so there wasn't much to see, but the darkness hid her tracks and swallowed her shadow. The air was heavy with apathy, just like it always seemed to be back then. As Kelly wandered through another night, she saw a police car pull up beside her. The officer rolled down his window and looked at her.

“What are you doing?’ he asked. Kelly’s response was immediate and reflexive: “Walking.”

“C’mon, get in the car,” the officer instructed. “I’ll drive you home.”

When the officer asked for Kelly’s address, she gave him the house number of a friend. It was her standard play whenever someone dug too deeply.

“He just dropped me off. He didn’t try to contact my parents or knock on the front door. He didn't search my bag, which had things in it that could've gotten me in a lot of trouble. He just let me go,” Kelly said. “I would’ve gone to jail if I had been Black. I would’ve gone to 'juvie.' That’s just how it was then and how it is now. 

"Race and circumstance had a lot to do with how people saw me, the way I was treated and the opportunities I had," Kelly added. "My whiteness protected me from being another at-risk kid going in and out of jail. Instead, people tried to protect me, give me resources.” 

Today, Kelly is an associate professor of social work at Quinnipiac with a PhD. She has shared her story with students dozens of times as she discusses different realities based on race, class and gender for people growing up in the United States. She is a cornerstone of The Prison Project at Quinnipiac, an interdisciplinary group of faculty, staff, students and allies driven to improve social justice and reduce mass incarceration with education, advocacy and reentry work.

Earlier this year, The Prison Project received a $364,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Linda Meyer, professor of law and co-founder of The Prison Project, and Janet Headley, director of foundation relations at Quinnipiac, helped to secure this transformative grant, the largest in the 10-year history of The Prison Project.

“This grant not only allows us to expand our programming, but it also allows us to help ensure there is a way back into society for currently and formerly incarcerated men and women,” said Steve McGuinn, associate professor of criminal justice and director of criminal justice at QU. “We’re truly thankful for the Mellon Foundation’s incredible generosity.”

Kelly, Meyer and McGuinn are some of the faculty who have leveraged education and taught classes inside Connecticut’s prisons. Others include Carolyn Kaas, associate professor of law; Jill Martin, professor of legal studies; Keith Kerr, professor of sociology; Thornton Lockwood, professor of philosophy; and Lynn Copes, associate professor of medical sciences.

Other faculty, including Khalilah Brown-Dean, associate provost for faculty affairs and associate professor of political science; Sarah Russell, a professor of law and director of the legal clinic in the School of Law; and Betsey Smith, senior associate dean of health sciences, have worked for criminal justice reform in statehouses, courthouses, the streets, the media — anywhere they can find a pulpit.

On another level, Quinnipiac has partnered with Trinity College and Charter Oak State College to develop an associate degree program at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut. Mary Paddock, an associate professor of modern languages & interdisciplinary studies and the executive director of interdisciplinary studies, spearheaded the effort at QU.

For Kelly and her Prison Project colleagues, the Mellon grant is a chance to change lives as well as change course. Without dignity, humanity and a hard moral pivot, America’s prison system — the largest in the world — will continue to inflict transgenerational harm, she said.

Consider: There are more than 10.35 million people in prison around the globe. America tops that list with more than 2.2 million incarcerated people, according to the National Institute of Corrections, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

In short, roughly 1-in-5 of the world’s incarcerated men and women are serving sentences in America, including Connecticut.

“Anytime we’re talking about social problems, we’re talking about all people — people in our communities, people in our classrooms, everyone,” Kelly said. “We’re not talking about those people. It’s us. We need to start talking about our social problems as us —people who are using substances, people who are OD’ing, people who are homeless, people who are jobless, people who are in-and-out of prison.

“If we make this an us conversation instead of a those people conversation, we get much more invested,” Kelly added. “Right now, we’re trying to deal with our social problems by locking people away. That doesn’t work. No one comes out of prison healthier than when they went in. And that means, ultimately, we’re not getting safer communities because people aren’t getting what they need.”

Flip the script

Leighton Johnson spent 10½ years in prison — almost half of that time in solitary confinement at Northern Correctional Institution in Somers, Connecticut. The absence of hope, stomped out every day like a guard’s cigarette, is completely foreign to anyone who has not experienced the cruelty of solitary confinement.

Think of a parking space. Now put it in a 6-by-8 box. For 23 hours a day.

The isolation nearly broke Johnson, but what really crushed him was the ambivalence on the outside. He wondered if folks even knew about the state-sanctioned isolation inside Northern? More than that, he wondered if they cared?

“Some people feel that whatever you get is what you deserve,” said Johnson, who completed 1,000 hours of machine tool training at the Carl Robinson Correctional Institution in Enfield, Connecticut, to learn a marketable skill for when he got out.

“But really, the punishment is taking away your freedom, doing your time. If you chain people up or leave them in their cells all day, don’t give them adequate medical and mental health care, take away their family connections and human contact, that’s torture.”

In 2019, Johnson shared his story as part of “As We EMERGE: Monologues of the Formerly Incarcerated,” a poignant and authentic production conceived by Don C. Sawyer III, another architect of The Prison Project. The production was a collaboration with theater students, who helped write scripts and right wrongs.

Sawyer is vice president for equity, inclusion and leadership development. He’s also an associate professor of sociology and the board chair for EMERGE Connecticut, a reentry program in New Haven that supports formerly incarcerated individuals with job training, peer-to-peer counseling, parenting classes, academic tutoring and other strategies to help them successfully return to their families and communities. McGuinn also works closely with this program.

“Don comes at it from a place of love, man. That’s why I connect with him,” Johnson said. “I look up to him. He grew up in the projects like me, but he didn’t take the same path that I took. Life is hard. This is an Anyhood, USA, story. You can talk about New Haven or California or wherever. This is a young Black male story.”

Since his release from prison, Johnson has worked as a public education coordinator with Stop Solitary CT, a grassroots organization dedicated to ending solitary confinement in Connecticut.

In testimony before the state Judiciary Committee this spring, Johnson detailed the hopelessness of solitary: “I have experienced having conversations with someone for months through the door, or through the ventilation system, only for them to go silent one day because they could not take it anymore, and they committed suicide by hanging themselves.”

His stories, his words, his memories — Johnson owns them all now, the transcript of trauma.

Johnson and other advocates, including formerly incarcerated people, were angry and frustrated in June when the PROTECT Act (SB-1059) was vetoed by Gov. Ned Lamont despite bipartisan support in Hartford. On July 14, Stop Solitary CT organized a rally at the State Capitol to protest the veto.

“I’m an abolitionist at heart. I don’t even like the word reform,” Johnson said. “All reform means is incremental change. That’s not enough for me. I grew up in poverty in the South Bronx in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s not an accident we grew up that way.”

And yet, the structural racism and benign neglect of America’s communities of color persists. The statistics for incarcerated Black people, in particular, are staggering when compared to the state’s at-large population.

There were 12,823 incarcerated people from Connecticut in state and federal custody in 2019, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Of those incarcerated individuals, 5,457 were Black.

That’s 42.5% of the prison population from Connecticut, nearly 3½ times the 12.2% of Black people in the state’s at-large population in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

At the same time, white people accounted for 3,803 of those incarcerated from Connecticut in 2019 — less than 30% of the prison population — even as white people made up 65.9% of the state’s at-large population.

Almost all incarcerated people — 95% — will get out of prison one day, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Programs such as EMERGE Connecticut are waiting to help make these men and women make the transition.

For Johnson, even after all the darkness and his lost years of solitary, he felt his heart swell last autumn. At age 37, he voted for the very first time.

“It felt really good to vote. It was important to me,” Johnson said. “My voice was finally heard. It didn’t matter whether or not the people I voted for won or lost. All that mattered was that my vote counted, just like everyone else’s.”

Education is a right

In the fall of 2016, Steve McGuinn, the criminal justice professor with the eternal 5 o’clock shadow, led eight Quinnipiac students into the Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown, Connecticut. They showed their IDs. They passed through the metal detector. They heard the electric buzz when the next door opened.

Moments later, the students from Quinnipiac met eight students from Garner. Together, as a class, they gathered in a common room. It became their learning space for the fall semester. Sometimes, they sat in groups of four — two students from Quinnipiac and two students from Garner. The discussions and connections came easily. The laughter did, too.

Ashley Appleby ’17 was a member of Quinnipiac’s first Inside-Outside class with McGuinn. Today, she is a fully funded PhD candidate in criminal justice at Rutgers University, School of Criminal Justice.

“The experience at Garner was more engaging than any classroom I’ve ever been in,” Appleby said. “The moment I stepped into that prison, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do. There was just something so unique about the whole experience. I can’t put it into words, but it was the most transformative experience of my undergraduate career.”

In many ways, those first few classes at Garner weren’t so different from the first few classes at Quinnipiac. “Everyone was a little nervous in the beginning, but that didn’t last very long,” said Appleby, who is now certified to teach Inside-Out classes. “I remember by the last day, everyone was so comfortable and so intrigued — not just by the material, but by each other.”

These outcomes have repeated themselves ever since The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program started at Temple University in 1997. Since then, more than 160 colleges and universities across the country and around the world have sponsored Inside-Out training and courses.

For Quinnipiac students, it's become the ultimate example of experiential learning and an egalitarian education. Now, with the Mellon grant, there's a real opportunity to impact even more lives with Inside-Out and other Prison Project initiatives.

Participants of the Prison Project program smile for a group photoStudents in Quinnipiac's inaugural Inside-Out class in 2016 are shown at the Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown, Connecticut.

"We've always been invested in what we're doing," McGuinn said. "But we didn't have the organizational structure before that could turn all this into something transformative for the people taking our classes and the communities we serve, both inside and outside."

This spring, Erin Corbett became The Prison Project’s first coordinator, the person who will leverage the collective work at Quinnipiac for the greatest good. With years of experience in independent school admissions, enrichment programs and postsecondary financial aid, her background and relationships across the state will help expand postsecondary opportunities.

Corbett is also the co-founder and CEO of the Second Chance Educational Alliance, Inc., a nonprofit organization in Connecticut that provides credit-bearing and not-for-credit college courses to confined learners.

McGuinn said the evolution of The Prison Project actually precedes its current name. In the 1970s, Quinnipiac faculty taught incarcerated students from the Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire and other state facilities right on campus.

“Two years ago, I went to get a transcript for Garner or Carl Robinson, and Amy Terry in the Registrar’s Office helped me,” McGuinn recalled. “She looked at me and said, ‘I’m so happy you guys are doing this again.’ When I asked her what she meant, she told me, ‘We used to do this all the time.’ I was blown away. I had no idea.”

So many times, education becomes the lifeline for an incarcerated individual upon reentry. The credential doesn’t have to be an associate degree from Charter Oak State College. It could be a certificate for machine tool training like Leighton Johnson earned at Carl Robinson.

It just takes one person to reach out, someone to believe in the intrinsic value of another human being.

Finding purpose in a pen

Sometimes, classes in prison are a diversion, a 60-minute escape from the numbing routine of a prison cell. Other times, these classes fuel a passion, even an obsession, for incarcerated people to become better than the worst thing they’ve ever done, as the saying inside goes.

For some incarcerated individuals, these classes set the stage for a good job and a steady income — even on the inside. For the exceptional students, it’s not simply a transformation, but rather, a metamorphosis.

The Sullivan Correctional Facility is a maximum security prison in the Catskill Mountains about 100 miles northwest of New York City. In the mid-20th century, this region in upstate New York was part of the “Borscht Belt,” a favorite summer getaway for many Jewish families.

These days, the quiet, one-time resort town of Fallsburg, New York, is home to “Sullivan” as John J. Lennon calls it. Lennon, one of about 600 incarcerated individuals at the prison, was convicted of second-degree murder in July 2004. He is serving a sentence of 28 years to life in the New York State Department of Corrections system.

Read John J. Lennon's Quinnipiac Magazine essay about prison education

Over the years, Lennon has done time at Rikers Island, Attica, Sing Sing, and now, Sullivan. But it wasn’t until Lennon met Hamilton College professor Doran Larson in 2009 through the Attica Writers Workshop that his world changed forever. Larson is also the director of the American Prison Writing Archive.

Lennon learned to write by observing, writing and editing. Again and again. The craft didn’t reward him right away, but when it finally did, Lennon delivered powerful and provocative prose. Over the last decade, he has written paid pieces detailing prison life for The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, The Atlantic and Esquire, where he is a contributing editor. Sports Illustrated and New York Magazine have run his byline, too.

“Prison is full of characters. It’s the sweet spot for an incarcerated person,” Lennon said, leaning slightly forward in Sullivan’s visitation room, a space that resembles a high school cafeteria with vending machines, microwave ovens and the lingering scent of spent popcorn.

Nearby, a framed photograph of incarcerated men from the Sullivan Community College Class of 2014 hangs on the wall. The self-improvement lessons are not lost on Lennon. Some accuse him of exploiting his crime and using it as agency. He understands the criticism and accepts it without rebuttal.

Lennon’s essays are his catharsis and salvation — all because he enrolled in a creative writing course on the inside. As much as prison journalism became his creative outlet, it became his marketable skill. “You can’t do 20 years here and not have shit to show for it,” Lennon said.

He understands that words, stories and their exclusive ownership matter deeply to incarcerated people. “That’s the sell,” Lennon explained. “It’s your story. Once you get published, you own your narrative. You take back that power.”

Prison has always been about power. Lennon lost his power when he was assigned his DOC number. He flaunts it now on his blue Twitter handle background: 04A0823.

In 2013, when Lennon scored his first byline in The Atlantic, he took back his name and his power. He hasn’t surrendered it since.

As Lennon shifts in his chair, he quotes the Jack Henry Abbott, a prison journalist who once counted author Norman Mailer among his most ardent supporters: “The most dangerous person in prison is the writer.”

But instead of a weapon, Lennon grips a pen at Sullivan. There is plenty of ink to go around here, after all. Lennon seems especially proud of his arms.

His thick biceps are remarkably decorated with prison art. On the left one, a prolonged tagline complements a pocket watch: “He who dares waste time has not discovered the value of life.

It’s a daily reminder for Lennon as he marks time and cashes checks. He’s eligible for parole in 2029.

What happens next?

Like Amber Kelly, the social work professor, McGuinn sometimes thinks about how his early interactions with law enforcement impacted his career.

“Growing up, I had a lot of contact with police where it was like, ‘OK, you’re 16 years old, and you just got pulled over, and we found a case of beer and a couple bottles of liquor in your car. We’re just going to take it and let you go.’ That’s how it went for me,” he said.

And then, there was the time when police in Washington, D.C., rolled up next to McGuinn and some buddies who had been drinking in the car.

“They just said, ‘Turn on your lights.’ Seriously, that’s what they told us,” McGuinn said. “No one got arrested. No one got in trouble. But you don’t recognize the difference in policing until you start to put these things together.

“I have a lot of friends who have been caught shoplifting, stealing, gotten into fights and nothing ever happened to them,” McGuinn added. “I had another friend who got caught with enough acid to put him in prison for 60 years, and he never spent a day in jail. Over time, you start to wonder why these stories are so different?”

Kelly wonders about those stories, too.

She’s taught trauma-informed mindfulness classes at the Cheshire Correctional Institution and the York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut. She helps students acknowledge the emotional scars of trauma, violence and substance abuse. She also helps them craft strategies to engage with life on their own terms.

A few years ago, Kelly taught a class at York with law professors Linda Meyer and Carrie Kaas about women, children and the law. Students examined public policy through a trauma-informed lens. During the class, students discussed child custody, incarceration, substance abuse and how public policy would have changed if they were writing the laws in Hartford.

“What do you think that would have looked like? What programs would have supported them when they needed it?” Kelly wondered aloud, even now. “People know their lives have been negatively impacted by unjust systems. They know that things aren’t set up to support them. Imagine if they had gotten programs that were helpful instead?”

On a big-picture level, Kelly’s work — her calling, really — focuses on systemic and structural change. She recites the data by heart and the numbers immediately dial up anger and frustration.

“One-third of Black men are involved in the criminal legal system at some point in their lives — and that includes Black communities in Connecticut. We need to figure out how to stop that,” Kelly said. “We also need to figure out how to support communities after generations of trauma through housing policies, mass incarceration and crappy schools.”

Kelly also serves the community more broadly. She’s the co-chair of the New Haven Women’s Resettlement Working Group, a board member of the Sex Workers and Allies Network in New Haven and an active partner with New Lifestyles, a nonprofit group that supports women who need help with addiction, homelessness, reentry and other issues.

Janice Murray is one of Kelly’s dear friends. She’s also the founder and CEO of New Lifestyles.

On this particular morning in the Westville neighborhood of New Haven, they spoke of courage, resilience and the power of storytelling. It’s the emotional glue that bonds people when they feel like no one else has ever shared their struggle.

Amber Kelly and Janice Murray stand leaned over a table smilingAmber Kelly, left, and Janice Murray are both friends and allies.

“I started out at the age of 12 with drinking, drugging and self-destructive behaviors,” Murray said calmly. “I was in-and-out of reform school until I was old enough to go to prison. I finally went into a treatment program after being in-and-out of Niantic like 20 times. I’ve been sober now for 15 years — July 8, 2006.”

A smile dances across Murray’s face when she shares her sobriety anniversary. But there’s more.

“In 1981, while I was in prison, when the AIDS virus first came out, I was part of that first crew that got tested for AIDS. And I was told that I had the AIDS virus, and I had six months to a year to live,” Murray said, her smile gone now. “After that diagnosis, I really hit rock bottom. I just wanted to die. I didn’t want to live. I didn’t think my life was worth anything because of all the things I had done in my past — the prostitution, being assaulted — it’s just a lot of stuff, you know?”

All these years later, Murray is sitting at a dining room table now with her neatly styled hair. The wispy streaks of silver are elegant and triumphant. Her smile is back now, too — just as bright as ever.

“Because of my self-destructive lifestyle is how New Lifestyles was born,” she said. “I wanted to reach out to other women. I wanted to let them know there is life after making so many mistakes in the past. I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d be where I am today. I don’t have a whole lot, but I’m clean and sober and life is good.”

Murray and Kelly talk about the differences they saw as young girls, how people treated them and what was offered to them.

"We had such different experiences because of how we were racialized and the expectations people had of us in our different contexts," Kelly said. "Janice as a young Black girl acting out in an urban city. Myself as a young white girl acting out in a more rural town. It's not right that in our country race impacts so much in terms of how people try or don't try to take care of you."

The back story has always been about community and lifting each other up, whether it’s New Lifestyles or The Prison Project at Quinnipiac. It’s about grace and compassion and empathy.

Amber Kelly still remembers that homeless girl who slid into the backseat of a police car all those years ago. She remembers how it felt to walk along a lonely road and be invisible, long after the cars go by.

That’s why Kelly and others affiliated with The Prison Project work so hard to make conversations about all people and never those people. Everyone needs to be seen. Everyone needs to be loved. Maybe now more than ever.

Illustration by Daryn Rowley
Photos by Dan Passapera

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