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Clutched in my hands was the latest issue of the North Carolina Law Review, my eyes darting between it and the prison tattoos that cover my arms. This wasn’t just another book among the thousands I had read since my incarceration began decades ago. I’m a contributing writer to The Nash News, our prison’s newspaper, so I’m used to seeing my thoughts in print. But this article, “Hope for the Hopeless: The Prison Resources Repurposing Act,” represented the culmination of years of work, education, and personal growth. Its authors were Philip Vance Smith II, editor of The Nash News, and me, Timothy Wayne Johnson. Two incarcerated men had drafted prison reform legislation that was published in a legal journal and even introduced on the floor of the North Carolina House of Representatives, despite our combined time served exceeding forty years, our life sentences, and ongoing pandemic restrictions.

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Holding the journal, I reflected on these implausible achievements and the tools that made them possible. Previously, few incarcerated individuals could achieve these feats, because they didn’t have one essential piece: access—access to education and access to critical information. A primary means of information access came through the JSTOR digital library, which contains millions of academic journal articles and other primary sources. My ability to access the library opened a world of not only information, but also opportunity.

I received JSTOR access through a higher education in prison program at Nash Correctional Institution in North Carolina in collaboration with the JSTOR Access in Prison Initiative. I am one of a very few incarcerated people to receive such an opportunity. Soon, all people incarcerated in our state will have the same ability via prison-issue tablets. Our story is an example of how access to JSTOR’s vast database of knowledge can facilitate rehabilitation and create opportunity.

In 2017, I joined the North Carolina Field Minister Program (NCFMP), one of the few educational opportunities available in the state prison. The program educates and trains long-term incarcerated individuals to change the prison culture “from the inside” by influencing, counseling, and mentoring others who are incarcerated. The first day of the program, the inaugural cohort met in a classroom with sparsely filled bookshelves—that single classroom was our entire college world.

Computer use offered limited options that first year. Open internet access is not given to people in prison. No Google, Facebook, or Wikipedia. We could type papers in Microsoft Word and create PowerPoint presentations, but research material was limited to hard-copy books around us. Program administrators promised more were coming.

In James Cameron’s Avatar, when wheelchair-bound Marine Jake Sully enters his avatar body, his instructor tells him to take it slow. But Jake can’t restrict himself after being confined for so long. He runs and runs, delighted to be free to do so for the first time in what must have felt like a lifetime.

I don’t know the feeling of physical freedom Jake experienced through being able to run after being confined to a wheelchair. But I know the feeling of mental freedom after long-term confinement.

In September of my sophomore year, in afternoon study hall, a classmate stood and announced, “It finally happened. We have access to the research sites.” My attention whipped back to the computer screen.

The library listed four options. I went to the first option. GoSearch had lots of interesting sources but none of them would open. I moved to the next option: JSTOR.

For our Church History course, we had to write a biography on an influential figure. I was planning to write about John Wesley, making him what will forever be my first-ever search on JSTOR. I searched for information on him and his impact on the eighteenth-century revival. F. A. J. Harding’s “The Social Impact of the Evangelical Revival“ introduced me to a club Wesley and his brother started while at Oxford: the Holy Club. Clicking from one link to another—finally able to experience the famed “research rabbit hole”—I traveled from there to another of the group’s members, George Whitefield, integral to the Great Awakening and the American Revolution. He became the topic of my paper.

An article by David Ceri Jones, “‘So Much Idolized by Some, And Railed at by Others’: Towards Understanding George Whitefield,” revealed how Whitefield’s work contributed to an atmosphere of revolution in the mid-1700s. Whitefield’s preaching dismantled regional and denominational barriers. A collective identity formed the unity needed for the separate states to join together. The article also highlighted Whitefield’s reprehensible views on slavery, helping me present a balanced depiction. Learning and making connections invigorated me.

Emerging from the research tunnel, my eyes scanned the room’s bustle. My classmates practically bounced as they shared their discoveries, like the Christmases from my childhood when my cousins and I would excitedly show off our newest toys. Animated talking and pointing filled the classroom.

“Look at this article on St. Augustine,” chirped one student, a fifty-year-old with the body of a running back. “Statues of Augustine exist all over the world with two symbols: a burning heart in one hand and an open book in the other.”

“Wow, that’s a good lesson for us,” answered his tablemate. “The combination of heart and mind.” Then he presented his prize: “Check out this article on Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave.’”

In the History of Ideas 3 class, we read Plato’s Republic, a work featuring the allegory in which human beings are imprisoned in a cave. Shackled to a wall with their heads held motionless, the captives see only shadows and hear only echoes. One of the prisoners breaks free and discovers a real world beyond the shadows. Like the beings in Plato’s cave, we were imprisoned physically and mentally. But we escaped together. Although still residing in a physical prison, access to information through JSTOR broke the chains confining our minds.

In the Republic, Plato presented his ideal city of Kallipolis. He hailed the city as a utopia, but I thought it more like the dystopian societies of Orwell and Huxley. Maybe this issue offered an apt idea for my course research paper. Questions hammered my mind: Did anyone else hold this view? Could I find enough sources?

To JSTOR I sprinted, my fingers hurtling over the keys. Searching “Kallipolis,” “dystopian literature,” and then “Kallipolis and dystopia,” extracted a repository of relevant sources, including Gorman Beauchamp’s “1984: Oceania as an Ideal State,” Matthew J. Franck’s “Brave ‘New World’, Plato’s ‘Republic’, and Our Scientific Regime,” and Helmut Klages’s “Models for a Future Society.”

My research paper, “Kallipolis—Utopia or Dystopia,” identified the characteristics of a dystopian society and used each characteristic to compare Kallipolis and Orwell’s Oceania from 1984. JSTOR freed me to do this mental exploration.

This access to information gave me much more than just better sources for school papers. As a voracious reader with a mind on hyperdrive, I saw connections and applications constantly flashed into my imagination, but was stifled by a lack of information. Information access freed me to harness the hyperdrive.

Research cultivated an oasis in the wasteland of prison. I blossomed in searching, printing, and reading. I dissected each article with mad scientist intensity using an arsenal of highlighters and pens. A pink highlighter for key terms, yellow highlighter for key information, blue ink for notes, red ink for composition ideas. My color-coded annotations helped me develop ideas and write.

During the 2019 Christmas school break, Phillip approached me with an idea for a legislative bill. He wanted me to help draft a bill and proposal to address the violence prevalent in prison. Prison officials blamed understaffing, but we disagreed. Lack of incentives caused hopelessness that produced violence. Together we refined and sharpened the idea. We researched, read, and discussed, repeating the cycle again and again. The JSTOR library contributed vitally.

Ronald F. Wright’s “Counting the Cost of Sentencing in North Carolina, 1980–2000” provided information to probe the history of the problem. Other articles buoyed our understanding of the complex issue, such as  “Juvenile Life without Parole in North Carolina.”

Most reform efforts focused on reducing sentences for people convicted of nonviolent crimes, but we recognized that approach as blatantly wrong. An article by John F. Pfaff, “Escaping from the Standard Story: Why the Conventional Wisdom on Prison Growth Is Wrong, and Where We Can Go From Here,” confirmed our assessment and provided valuable evidence. That discovery led us to another key source, a book by Pfaff that helped us develop the reform plan and top-down approach of starting with longest sentences to achieve real reform.

From there, we drafted the Prison Resources Repurposing Act (PRRA), which aims to change the North Carolina prison environment by instilling hope in those serving life sentences. Individuals would be able to earn an opportunity for release by completing behavioral, educational, and vocational goals over a twenty-year period.

In March 2021, we presented the PRRA at the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison’s virtual conference. Audience members responded enthusiastically, applauding the plan and offering support. A month later state representatives introduced the bill in the NC House. Despite eighteen sponsors, the bill stalled in committee, suffering the same fate in 2023.

Far from a loss, the incredible experiences—presenting at a national conference, introduction of the bill in the legislature, publication in a law journal—were nowhere near as satisfying as the effect I saw our work have on my neighbors.

A longtime friend swiftly found me after stepping off a transfer bus.

“Tim, thank you, man. Thank you for the bill you and Phil wrote,” he paused, failing to push back the emotion. “You’ve given us hope. I wish you could have seen the guys at Maury [a closed-custody prison]. Dudes were hugging and crying.”

Men hugging and crying in prison does not happen. He recounted how several gang members, as well as incarcerated men who were using and selling drugs, completely changed their paths because of the hope of eventual release and not wanting to jeopardize it. Hearing about the spread of hope and its product made tears brim in my eyes.

Drafting that legislation is the apex of my impact, but it’s just one peak in a range of ways access to JSTOR has empowered me to uplift those around me. Last year another legal journal published an article I wrote. The article used empirical evidence of neurological development to argue that the minimum age for eligibility of a life without parole sentence should be twenty-five. Again, JSTOR access was indispensable.

Access to information enhanced my education. Education enhanced my life. In The Road Home, Richard Paul Evans writes, “We all have a road to walk. The foolish walk blindly. The intelligent navigate it. The good repair it as they go.”

I walked blindly for years, foolishly making potholes, even craters, and harming others. Remorse for that harm compels me to live as one who repairs the road on the rest of this walk. Education gave me the critical thinking skills needed to perform that repair.

My own education then spawned the education of others, as I became a teacher myself. I teach two classes as a graduate assistant with the NCFMP. Each summer I teach incoming freshmen Foundations in Writing, where students learn the basics of academic writing: terminology, the writing process, and tactics. Students also receive advice for adjusting to college in life prison and approaching their studies, mindful of the goal of community service. Teaching the class offers me a chance to shape these students who will serve the prison community.

Our college extension campus has an onsite learning center, operated by incarcerated graduate assistants and students. I helped establish the center, where interns learn to help students become more competent and confident writers. They also receive guidance on fostering personal growth in the students. Instructing interns helps me create a culture of not only writing, but also of service.

I also teach a rehabilitation class to individuals in the general population at Nash Correctional Institution. “Thinking for a Change,” a Cognitive Behavior Instruction course, helps students make better choices by giving them the tools to examine and then control their thinking. They learn to reduce risk-taking behavior and break the conflict cycle by applying problem-solving and social skills, such as active listening, understanding the feelings of others, and responding to anger. My co-teacher and I begin each class by asking the students their goals; helping them to fulfill them becomes our singular goal. We try to guide and encourage them to live effectively in prison and after their release.

Education taught me to write. Two goals guide my writing: positively affecting people and changing the narrative about incarcerated people. A mother responded to one of my essays by sharing how the story of transformation restored her hope that her son could and would change. The people who refused to give up on me rescued me. Maybe that belief will rescue her son.

Education and information have helped me achieve beyond anything I dreamed. I now work for the college program as a graduate assistant and get to greet the new students each summer. Of course, I share about access to JSTOR and the consequent possibilities. I want newcomers to experience the liberty of leaving their mental wheelchairs and running free though information access.

Every person incarcerated in North Carolina will have this liberty when the JSTOR digital library gets added to the prison-issue tablets. A world of information and possibility will open. Despite being locked up, information access unlocks opportunities for incarcerated individuals to learn, discover their purpose, and have a positive impact.

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JSTOR is a digital library for scholars, researchers, and students. JSTOR Daily readers can access the original research behind our articles for free on JSTOR.

Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Vol. 15, No. 4 (DECEMBER 1946), pp. 256–284
Historical Society of the Episcopal Church
Wesley and Methodist Studies, Vol. 5 (2013), pp. 3–29
Penn State University Press
College Literature, Vol. 11, No. 1 (1984), pp. 1–12
The Johns Hopkins University Press
The New Atlantis, No. 40 (Fall 2013), pp. 73–88
Center for the Study of Technology and Society
Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4, Special Issue on Utopian Social Thought in Literature and the Social Sciences (December 1973), pp. 323–333
Penn State University Press
Crime and Justice, Vol. 29 (2002), pp. 39–112
The University of Chicago Press
The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973–), Vol. 110, No. 2 (2020), pp. 141–179
Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law
Federal Sentencing Reporter, Vol. 26, No. 4, Is the Drug War Ending or Retrenching? (April 2014), pp. 265–270
University of California Press on behalf of the Vera Institute of Justice