Widener Professor and Student Team Up to Publish Anthology of Writing from Graterford Prisoners

The image above appears on the cover of "Letters to My Younger Self," a newly released book edited by Jayne Thompson and Emily DeFreitas.

"Letters to My Younger Self" Cautions Juvenile Offenders about Life's Choices and their Consequences

Jayne Thompson, a senior lecturer at Widener University from Claymont, Del., has led efforts to compile the writings of about 20 prisoners at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford in the new book "Letters to My Younger Self," published by Serving House Books. Widener senior creative writing major Emily DeFreitas of Kendall Park, N.J., has assisted Thompson with the editing process. The book is available on Amazon for $10, and each time a copy is sold, two more are printed to be given for free to a young person who may be veering toward a life of crime.

For the past three years, Thompson has commuted an hour to an hour and a half to Graterford, Pennsylvania's largest maximum security prison, to mentor about 20 prisoners—mostly serving life sentences and ranging in age between 25 to 80—in a reading and writing group. For about an hour or two a week, she has sat alone with the men, where they have talked freely about writing and openly shared what they've written. Their candidness gave Thompson the idea to have them write letters to their younger selves or memoir pieces of a time when they were between 11 and 17 and made a decision that had negative consequences or of an incident that continues to sit uncomfortably in their conscience.

Prior to beginning her group at Graterford prison, Thompson taught a class at Chester High School. While teaching at Graterford, she also began hearing the cases of juvenile offenders from Chester, Pa. at another volunteering engagement with the Youth Aid Panel.

"These experiences formed a triad, a crucible that challenged me to do something to plug the school-to-prison pipeline that I now saw as more than a theory," she said. "I saw it in all its painful, frustrating reality."

The richness of the material generated by the Graterford men prompted Thompson to compile "Letters to My Younger Self" with the intention to distribute it to a youth audience, specifically juvenile offenders.

"With their own stories of regretful decisions and painful experiences, the anthology contributors are doing social work behind bars," Thompson said. "They asked me, and they ask us all, to take action in the face of great obstacles; their stories call for change—in ourselves and in our broken societal systems. The men taught me about hope."

The book features an afterward by Serving House co-founder and author Thomas E. Kennedy about his experience visiting the Graterford writing group. He had donated copies of one of his novels to the prison prior to his visit.

To distribute "Letters to My Younger Self," Thompson plans to visit juvenile detention centers in the Greater Philadelphia region throughout the summer, where she will discuss the book. She and DeFreitas also plan to create lesson plans to go along with the book for Teaching Tolerance, a division of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and present the book to English classes at Chester High School in the fall.

"While I had hoped that the men's pieces would change young people's minds about bad choices, I also had another agenda," Thompson said. "I wanted the Graterford men to find empathy for themselves. Perhaps this empathy would lead to healing and some forgiveness. I hope it did."

Widener University is a metropolitan university that connects curricula to social issues through civic engagement. Dynamic teaching, active scholarship, personal attention, leadership development and experiential learning are key components of the Widener experience. A comprehensive doctorate-granting university, Widener is comprised of eight schools and colleges that offer liberal arts and sciences, professional and pre-professional curricula leading to associate, baccalaureate, master's, and doctoral degrees. The university's campuses in Chester, Exton and Harrisburg, Pa., and Wilmington, Del., serve more than 6,300 students. Widener is proud to be a tobacco-free campus. Visit the university's website, www.widener.edu.