Author and Widener University professor Jayne Thompson was the All-College Hour Speaker for Wednesday March 23 in the MacVittie College Union Ballroom. Her multimedia presentation was primarily based on her time teaching creative writing in prisons and her work with juvenile delinquents. The PowerPoint presentation that accompanied her speech was titled “Mercy’s ‘Richer Fruits’: Seeking Justice in A Maximum Security Prison.” Approximately 30 individuals attended the presentation.
Thompson was an editor for the book Letters to My Younger Self: An Anthology of Writings by Incarcerated Men at S.C.I Graterford and a Writing Workbook, published in 2014. The book features a series of essays from students in Thompson’s creative writing courses at a state correctional institute in southeastern Pennsylvania. During her presentation, she played some audio recordings of prisoners reading the pieces that they wrote for the book.
Professor of English and director of writing Rachel Hall introduced Thompson as “a writer, editor, teacher and activist … [who] describes how reading and writing create avenues to freedom.” After the brief introduction, Thompson began by answering a question that, according to her, she received often: “Why do you work with prisoners? Why are you here?” To help explain her commitment to incarcerated students, she told a story about an armed Ku Klux Klan attack on peaceful, anti-Klan protestors in her neighborhood when she was 12 years old.
“In 88 seconds, four men and one woman were dead and many others were badly hurt with gunshot wounds. Soon, these men should be brought to justice, as any 12-year-old could tell you—but none of those men were found guilty,” she said. “To watch as nothing happened afterward was heartbreaking and incredibly confusing for me at the time.” According to Thompson, this was the time when she first became cynical about the American justice system.
Thompson transitioned to talk about her time 30 years later when she began teaching juvenile delinquents at Chester High School. She spoke of specific students and their run-ins with the law. She listed the cases of students who were “expelled forever for putting a teacher in the hospital … arrested for selling drugs … arrested for carrying an unregistered handgun.” She concluded, “Some of these students fell down the rabbit hole … almost like a school to prison pipeline.”
Throughout her presentation, Thompson referenced various works of literature that she believed to be relevant to the system. Specifically, Thompson recited passages from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Wilfred Owen’s Out in the Dark. She also made multiple references to Richard Wright’s novel about race and justice in America, Native Son.
At the beginning of the presentation, Thompson used voice recordings that were originally aired on the radio program RadioTimes. One voice recording was of a 75-year-old inmate named James Taylor. Taylor performed a piece referencing abolitionist John Brown in relation to the penal system. At the end of her presentation, Thompson played two other recordings from men identified as Harun F. and Christopher R.W.M. These inmates wrote essays about betrayal from fellow inmates and about the barricades they felt in prison respectively.
According to Thompson, the time she spent teaching inmates and troubled students influenced her views on the state of the justice system and on race relations. She recalled a statement made by a student at Chester High School that had a major impact: “One day, one of the students told me, “You aren’t white,’” she said. “‘White people don’t like black people.’”
The presentation ended after approximately 90 minutes.