It would take Jayne Thompson, a Widener University English professor, an hour or more to navigate the layers of security that separated her from her students.
When Thompson finally reached her classroom, she faced a more daunting challenge: inspiring 20 inmates from Graterford Prison with the written word. The prisoners, many in their 60s and incarcerated for decades, were participants in Graterford's Prison Literacy Project.
"I stood up at the board and talked about conflict and crisis resolution," Thompson, 47, recalls. "I did pretty much what I do at Widener." The by-the-book approach wasn't cutting it. These men were looking for someone to listen, not another lecture.
Her solution seems simple in retrospect, almost like a high school writing prompt - compose a message to a younger version of yourself and tell that person how you feel now. But in the hands of inmates, some serving life sentences, it becomes an opportunity to explore seething regret, endless introspection, and loss that boil behind cell walls.
The missives from Thompson's students to themselves form the backbone of a 189-page book, Letters to My Younger Self (Serving House Books, $10), a collection that functions in equal measures as a chronicle of abuse, a seldom-seen window into American prisons, and a desperate warning.
"Educate yourself at all cost. Scream for help where it hurts most if you must," writes a 70-year-old prisoner under the pseudonym "James T.," addressing his school-age self. "Humanity will respond if you're sincere. Trust me."
Thompson's class became almost like a support group, as grown men used the letters to grapple publicly for the first time with memories of molestation or unspeakable parental abuse. While later chapters also feature prisoners' essays on family life and reactions to popular poetry, the reflective letters, which are occasionally addressed to deceased relatives or estranged children, are by far the most haunting aspect of the collection.
"What I was really hoping is that they would wind up writing about their younger selves and maybe have some empathy for their younger selves," Thompson says. "They're very hard on themselves, very angry at themselves all the time. ... There's a lot of self-loathing, but the letters act as a form of therapy."
Few look for sympathy or use their writing to shift blame for their crimes; their letters are more often sorrowful accounts of men still searching for the exact point where their lives went wrong.
"I saw you leap out of your bedroom window that night," writes "Paul J. P." to his mother, deceased 50 years. "I think something important in me shattered when you crashed through the glass. That window symbolized the best part of my life, scattered into a thousand pieces in front of our house."
Every word was retyped by Thompson and undergraduate student Emily DeFreitas, as prisoners at Graterford are prohibited from exchanging digital media or using the Internet. The pair sifted through stacks of hand-scrawled writing, print-outs, and typewritten paper, encompassing more than 120 essays, letters, and poems, to piece together the collection. They cut out references to inmates' crimes and to explicit sexuality. They also identified each writer by a pen name rather than his real name, per a request from Graterford administrators.
Thompson, who also teaches a summer English class for teens in the Chester Upland School District, says the book is also meant to be a sort of teaching tool - many of the inmates wished they could relate their stories directly to kids facing the same burdens and tough choices they once did. To that end, proceeds from book sales will cover costs of distributing the book to high school students across the region. The book also includes end-of-chapter review questions for potential students (or interested readers) to consider.
Jayshonna Toler of Chester, 15, was one of the first students to receive a copy of the book, through a class she took with Thompson over the summer. Toler said in an interview that she read sections of the book in class, but was motivated to finish in her free time at home.
"One man wrote about how he misses his mom, how he don't remember the last time he saw her," she says. "It's awful. But it tells you about how all these people did wrong. It tells you about how they wish they could change it, but they can't."
Toler said the book had a clear message for her: "Always work hard for what you want in life, and get your education."
Back at Graterford, Thompson is preparing to say goodbye to the inmates she has taught for the last three years, while welcoming an entirely new class. She will likely never again see or speak to "James," "Paul," or many of the other students she built relationships with. Because she is a prison volunteer, regulations prohibit her from pursuing any form of communication with Graterford inmates outside a classroom.
For Thompson, that's heartbreaking. But it was a decision her former students made together, willingly giving up not only contact with her but also one of the few creative outlets offered to inmates.