Second chance mentality: First chance reality,” presented by JSTOR Access in Prison, is our 2024 contribution to Second Chance Month. Each week we will offer a direct portal into the minds and hearts of experts on incarceration who we hear about, but not from. I hope to foster a deeper understanding and human connection through the lens of prison-based education. We received nearly 200 submissions this year, and thanks to a generous donor, each person who submitted a response received a dictionary and thesaurus, upon the advice of Unbound Authors.

The essence of names and the dignity of self-identification: What do you wish to be called?

This simple question, often taken for granted, carries profound significance in carceral spaces. In the language of incarceration, labels are affixed to people who are incarcerated and they do not have agency to decide how they would like to be addressed. In some facilities, they are reduced to a department identification number. We consulted with The Formerly Incarcerated College Graduate Network for guidance, and were convinced that we should ask people what terminology they prefer. We adhere to people-first language, a respectful and empathetic way of communication that acknowledges individuals as more than their circumstances or actions. It’s a practice rooted in respect, aiming to dismantle preconceptions and emphasize the individuality and worth of each person. Not everyone uses this language, and many of the people submitting essays used the default nomenclature of the system housing them.

A commitment to authentic voices

We have made a conscious decision to publish submissions in their original form – unchanged in language, grammar, or spelling. This approach is not about overlooking “errors” but about valuing authenticity and the unique voice of each contributor. I respect the raw, unfiltered expressions of those who have taken a step to share their realities with us. I am here not to judge or correct but to listen, learn, and understand the depth of experiences conveyed through their words. It is my hope that you share my respect for the sentiment conveyed rather than the syntax employed.

Prison has a paywall

Writing from prison comes with its own set of barriers we don’t have to think about. Limited access to materials, restrictive communication policies, and the pervasive sense of isolation from the outside world pose significant challenges to self-expression. Yet, despite these obstacles, many choose to reach out, to share their stories, reflections, and visions for themselves – a testament to the resilience of people seeking connection. With the average prison wage 15 cents/hour, someone needs to work 4 hours to pay for the stamp. I have a special place in my heart for each person who slipped multiple submissions in the same envelope – an infraction that can lead to solitary confinement.

The importance of authentic representation

Authentic representation matters. In a world where narratives about incarcerated individuals are often shaped by external perceptions and media portrayals, providing a platform for direct expression is vital. Education provides new opportunities for expression, for a person to define their reality on their own terms. This authenticity brings a richness and complexity to our understanding of incarceration, challenging stereotypes and fostering empathy.

Please approach these essays with an open heart and mind. Reading these submissions enlightened, challenged, and inspired me. While other people with histories of incarceration helped review submissions, I made the final determinations myself. Some don’t conform neatly to the topic, but sometimes we learn more by taking the scenic route. I invite you along for this ride through Second Chance Month, so we can navigate together the intricate narratives of second chances and the realities of first chances, as experienced from within the confines of prison.

For more information on the JSTOR Access in Prison initiative, head over to the program page here.