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Speakers highlight the importance of news and education for incarcerated people

Perseverance while in prison can be difficult, said Donald Washington, Jr. in a webinar hosted by the university. Washington and Lawrence Bartley,  journalists at The Marshall Project—a nonprofit news organization about criminal justice in the United States—spoke on their roles in the effort to inform and empower incarcerated individuals through the production and dissemination of news inside the prison walls, as well as their personal experience with incarceration. 

Both Washington and Bartley were formerly incarcerated individuals, and it was Bartley’s difficult experience in prison that motivated him to help other people in prisons write their own stories, Bartley said during the event. Bartley recalls his friend telling him, “sometimes when you’re going into something deep and dark like that, it will make for the best pieces of writing.” 

Bartley’s passion for The Marshall Project was widespread and inspired those around him, according to Washington, who attributes his interest in joining The Marshall Project to Bartley’s passion.

Bartley and Washington spoke about specific goals they have for the project, one of which is to tackle the words we as a society use to describe people who are incarcerated and the stigma surrounding this language. The speakers are attempting to change this by launching a language project about the use of the words like “felon” and “inmate.” This use of these words, according to Bartley, can be very offensive. 

Bartley explains that by using these terms it is like “putting that person on a lower caste.” Bartley and Washington are passionate about tackling this issue, especially given the power that words can have and the negative stigma it creates, explains Bartley.

Negative stigma regarding incarceration was also a difficulty in the prison environment itself. Bartley described how some workers in the prisons would not let him forget about the crime he had committed 27 years ago. It was difficult to not internalize that mistake, says Bartley.

Washington and Bartley both expressed that it was important for those who are incarcerated, especially as a juvenile, to know that “you have a long life to live.” Washington explains that it is easy for someone to “dig themselves in a really big hole early in life.” 

What helped Washington the most while he was incarcerated was human connection and contact, which people who are incarcerated are so often deprived of, according to Washington. The work it takes to succeed after prison begins long before you get out. The process involves organizing, meeting and brainstorming about what you want to do with your life, said Washington. 

Bartley then brought up the issue of unequal opportunity based on prison location. Preparing for life on the outside can be easier for those in facilities that are closer to the cities because those facilities have more access to resources and volunteers, Bartley said.

Washington explained that college and education can add immeasurable value to one’s time while incarcerated. “Attending college was the best decision I made,” Washington said. Bartley spoke of challenging himself in his classes and seeing the value. Bartley and Washington express that the education they received is what made their participation in The Marshall Project possible. 

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