Georgetown professor Marc Howard and his students leave Jessup correctional facility after a class with their Jessup counterparts. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

Tray and Rashema are at it again.

“My mom, she didn’t drink while I was in her womb,” Tray says. “She protected me while I was there and — ”

“Okay, pause,” says Rashema to the convicted murderer who’s 27 years older. “This sounds bad, but does it matter?”

“I’ve got to navigate this life,” says Tray. “And if I hate you — ”

“You curvin’,” Rashema says.

“Every day I fight them negative emotions, or they kill me in here,” Tray says, reminding everyone that this classroom is in a prison. “If I don’t fight them I’ll have dope tracks up and down my arms.”

“Do you think — ”

“She was pregnant at 13,” Tray says, leaning in on the plastic brown chair, “and the man she loved got murdered by police at 15.”

“How many teenage mothers are out there?” Rashema says from the chair opposite him, their classmates and professor listening, inmates yelling in the hall. “How many have fathers who are dead? You gotta be strong. You gotta think, ‘I’m gonna do something that gets me past this and doesn’t get me back in this predicament.’ You gotta take the pain and sorry, and you’ve gotta muster that into power and push.”

Tray is dumbstruck. The overhead lights are shiny stripes on his bald head. He folds his arms against this young woman in the black boots, this 20-year-old college sophomore with the pink pencil, this outsider who speaks his language, knows his world and is testing his prison psychology degree.


Georgetown students Madeline Silva (left) and Rashema Melson (right) discuss with a Jessup inmate how to prevent youth from ending up in prison. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

In this class of 31, the students share a hunger for learning, a nimble sense of humor, a desire to fix the problems of the world.

About half the classmates are convicted felons: murderers or would-be murderers, all black but one, and nearly all serving the equivalent of life sentences. The other half are mostly white women from Georgetown University, where their lives are just beginning.

“We’re at a unique moment,” says the professor, Marc Howard, to his students during the first class in late January. “For 40 years the policy has been ‘more incarceration.’ But now both sides are almost united on the need for reform.”

This spring 2016 college course is coded GOVX-400, wherein the “X” could stand for “experiment,” but the professor refers to it as the Prison Reform Project. The idea is that the inmates’ experiences and the Georgetowners’ scholarship will yield proposals to reform each phase of the criminal-justice system. Howard’s other goal is to humanize the inmates, give them a voice, share their insight during a public presentation at the end of the semester.

Their classroom is a bright room with cinder-block walls in Jessup Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Maryland with 1,656 inmates.

It’s snowing when the first class begins in January, but in the prison there’s no hint of the outside world. There is only fluorescence and loud whirring fans and drinking water that tastes like metal. The students sit in a circle and introduce themselves. The Georgetowners say their names, where they’re from.

Ali from Connecticut is working with an after-school program for teens caught up in the court system.

Madeline from New Hampshire and Andrew from Upstate New York led an alternative spring break trip that included a stop at Sing Sing.

Queen from the Bronx is writing her senior thesis on the war on drugs.

They each explain why they’re here. The Jessup men do not. The Jessup men explain where they are trying to get to.

Abu, 43 and in prison since he was 17, just wrote a bill for the Maryland legislature to reform juvenile sentencing laws.

Hekima, 33 and in prison since 2004, is studying to be a counselor.

Avion, 37 and incarcerated since 17, aspires to be a published writer.

Tray wraps up introductions with a note of caution.

“I didn’t get here by being innocent,” Tray says. “It’s a reality we have to face: Sometimes we do some brutal, cruel things, and maybe you should never go home. That voice should be heard as well.”

When the professor asks his students to raise their hands if they have family in prison, many Jessup men do. Only one Georgetown student does: Rashema Melson .


Rashema Melson is overcome with emotion by the attendance of inmates’ family members during the class’s presentation on prison reform at Georgetown University. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

The homeless valedictorian. That’s what Rashema became when she graduated top of her high school class while living in the shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital, where raccoons skittered through the halls. Then she got a full ride to Georgetown, and the media stamped her as the ultimate success story: She was one of 1.36 million homeless students in U.S. public schools, but now she was headed for a prestigious hometown university.

From birth, Rashema seemed bound for a certain life. Before she was a year old, her drug-dealing father was shot to death. She grew up all over Southeast Washington, then in Ohio, then Maryland. She went to 10 grade schools. She felt no sense of home, no sense of purpose.

And then she found books. Nothing high-minded. The “Goosebumps” series by R.L. Stine. The romances of Nora Roberts. In those pages was evidence that there were worlds beyond her own. If she wanted out, it was on her.

She went to three high schools, finally settling at Anacostia and deciding to work her way past bullying, alcohol, the D’s and F’s on her report card. Her family wound up in the shelter at D.C. General. Cold showers. No sheets. But by then she had a growing collection of honor-roll certificates.

She pushed her grade-point average to a 4.0. And then, in spring 2014, she was in a bright red graduation gown on a stage in front of hundreds.

“Throughout my journey here I have learned that time does not wait, pity or adjust for — or to — anyone,” she said at the microphone. “And life is not fair. Life is not fair.”

Her brother, in trouble with the law since 2012, was arrested that summer for a home invasion and armed robbery; he was trying to steal basketball shoes that he lost in a bet. Rashema enrolled in Marc Howard’s Prison and Punishment class in fall 2015, around the time her brother was sentenced to 12 years, and then GOVX-400 in January 2016. And there — at the prison holding her brother — she met Arlando “Tray” Jones III, who had spent 31 years inside the system she was trying to understand.


Georgetown students Brian Shulman (left) and Queen Adesuyi, along with the rest of their class, walk through Jessup Correctional Institution. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

The students are split into three groups: before prison, inside prison and after prison.

Tray and Rashema are both assigned to the “before” group, whose job is to explore how young people end up in prison and then brainstorm ways to curb that fate. By the second class, in February, the two of them are in a rolling debate about nature vs. nurture and destiny vs. willpower.

“Answer this question,” Rashema tells Tray. “What pushes you more than the hardships you face? If there’s nothing to push you, you’ll stay mediocre.”

“I told you last week what pushes me,” Tray says. “When someone befriends me I’m gonna be a better friend to you than you will ever be. That’s what makes me get up in the morning. I’m not guilty of this murder. The one I got found guilty of is the one I didn’t do, but if I take on the bitterness and hatred — ”

“That’s not what I said,” Rashema says, exasperated. “Every time! I think you need therapy. You need to work this out. Because every time I ask you about what it is, you go right back to those three people: mom, 13 and pregnant, dad shot 15 times ...”

“The last thing I want is pity,” Tray says.

“This is my point!” Rashema says, throwing her hands up. “You were in a situation and was pushed because of the circumstance you’re in. I get that, and that’s where we cut it off and work with you. We over that now.”


Portrait of Jessup inmate Arlando "Tray" Jones in the prison library, with one of his favorite books, Charles Dickens's "A Tale of Two Cities." (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

Arlando “Tray” Jones was a trigger boy for a drug kingpin in the early ’80s. His mother was 14 when she had him, in the ashes of the ’68 Baltimore riots, and she left him in the care of her sisters. When he was 18 months old, his father was killed during a robbery. Tray started stealing from bodegas when he was 7 years old.

His family house was in East Baltimore, in a hive of open-air drug markets. Tired of living day-to-day by shoplifting booty, Tray persuaded his hustling partner to buy a half-pound of weed.

Now a rookie dealer, Tray was first picked up by the police at age 12. He fought classmates. He got a gun. He found a hero in a narcotics dealer named Fat Larry, who drove a gray Cadillac with a red-leather interior. Tray started working at his stash houses, earning $300 a night, and he shot and nearly killed a man during a drug-related argument when he was 13 .

He didn’t feel responsible. He was the product of an environment, he thought. He spent two months at the Maryland Training School for Boys, a juvenile detention center that prepared him more for a life inside the criminal justice system, he says, than a life outside it. Landing in a group home, he started moving cocaine by the kilogram. He carved out his own territory in East Baltimore, around Rutland Avenue and East Eager Street. He settled disputes with bullets. He was in eighth grade.

“A number of black mothers and fathers curse the day I was born because I brought such grief to their lives,” Tray would write years later, in prison.

At 16 he was arrested, charged, convicted of murder and, in 1985, sentenced to life in prison. He accepted his fate and vowed to make something of himself in prison. He finished his high school equivalency in ’87. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in applied psychology in ’94. In longhand and then on a typewriter, he wrote a memoir titled “Eager Street.” He studied poetry and philosophy, which put into words his angst and fear and lust for power. Then Marc Howard began teaching a criminal justice course at Jessup. Tray saw a chance to ground his lofty literary knowledge in the structural problems of his own world.

“I can’t believe you’re older than me,” Rashema says, frustrated that Tray doesn’t share her philosophy of self-reliance. “How do you not understand?”

“Because you at the point in life where you know everything,” Tray says, “but the older you get, the less you do. When I was 18, 19, I knew everything.”

“I know what love is because growing up I didn’t feel good,” Rashema says. “That made me hate myself, and be a bully. I had to learn to love myself, and when you learn to love yourself you learn to love others.”

“I get you. I know where you’re at. I know bitterness.”

Rashema’s eyes flare. “I’m not bitter.”

“Bitterness, hatefulness and resentment will eat through any vessel that tries to contain it,” Tray says. “As humans we are migratory creatures — ”

“I think it’s something in yourself you haven’t seen yet.”

“I’ve been in prison since I was 16 years old, so there’s a lot of things I can’t find. Growing up in a Maryland penitentiary, you mature differently. ... Jails, ghettos — they take our humanity away.”


Georgetown professor Marc Howard teaches his first joint class with Georgetown students and Jessup Correctional Institutional students at the Jessup facility. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

In the summer after eighth grade , when he traveled with his Long Island soccer team to London, Marc Howard and a teammate got caught shoplifting CDs. They were taken by British police to a holding cell for several hours. Before driving them back to their hotel, officers explained that their criminal record would be expunged when they were 17.

“I have often reflected back onto a time when my life trajectory could have gone in a different direction,” Howard would write later. “And I’ve realized that I did not embody my foolish actions, and most importantly that I was fortunate that they did not come to define me. I got a ‘second chance,’ and I made the most of it.”

Prison reform turned into a vocation for Howard through the case of his high school classmate Marty Tankleff, whose coerced confession to the murder of his parents landed him in prison for 17 years. After visiting him in 2004, Howard promised that he would never stop helping to win Tankleff’s release, and that he would continue prison work after that.

After years of work by a support team, Tankleff was exonerated and released in 2007. In 2012 Howard got his law degree from Georgetown and later began teaching at Jessup. He wanted to see the inside of the prison system and understand its flaws.

Why does the United States have nearly 25 percent of the world’s inmates when it has only 5 percent of its total population?

Why has the U.S. incarceration rate ballooned nearly 320 percent since 1978?

Why are juveniles able to be sentenced to life without parole?

Howard found his incarcerated students to be like Tankleff: gentle, joyful and wanting to taste the outside world, and exert some influence over it, from the 65 square feet of their shared cells.

About 150 Georgetown students applied to be in GOVX-400. Howard picked 15 who demonstrated a familiarity with and passion for the subject.

He hoped that they would see past the inmates’ backgrounds and appearances, that all the students would see each other as a human being. Then, during freewheeling group discussions, Howard would watch Rashema and Tray bring it to another level. They were like two versions of the same person who were debating each other’s shared past and divergent futures. Somewhere in that debate was a solution, or at least a revelation.


Georgetown professor Marc Howard and his students wait after being searched to go through more security doors at Jessup. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

Six times over the semester, the chosen 15 make the 60-minute drive from the Georgetown campus, with its manicured lawns and handsome Gothic architecture, to Jessup, where they enter a world of rusty iron, razor wire and irritable corrections officers.

“Buy some baggy pants,” a female officer snaps as they go through security for their fourth class in mid-March. “Call ’em your jail pants. You don’t want them having dreams and nasty thoughts about you.”

The inmates in GOVX-400 are gentlemen during class. They revere Howard and treat the women like queens. They are also considered violent criminals. They are defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done. All it takes is Googling to see that one sweet and grandfatherly inmate, for example, bludgeoned his wife to death.

“I’ve been on a philosophical kick lately,” says senior Andrew Debraggio to his “inside prison” group during one class. “How do you define freedom?”

His incarcerated group members answer, one by one.

“Freedom’s a state of mind,” says Turk, who spent 20 of his 34 years in prison in solitary confinement.

“Even when I was home I didn’t feel free,” says Bobby, who entered prison at 15 and then taught himself to read.

Their time together is precious: only a couple of hours a handful of times over four months. It’s enough time to get acquainted, to share life experiences, to despair over systemic problems. But is it enough time to craft something that has any impact on the real world?


In the class’s presentation, Rashema Melson speaks emotionally about her brother, who is incarcerated at Jessup. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

The “inside prison” group starts making a podcast called “If Walls Could Talk,” featuring phone interviews with the inmates on topics such as overcrowding, mental health and solitary confinement. On a Tuesday evening in early March, the Georgetown students huddle in an audio room at the campus library and take a call from Avion, whose release date is 2043, when he’ll be 65.

“Why does overcrowding lead to violence?” asks Helen Brosnan, a senior government major from New York.

“Basically it’s the same way in the streets,” says Avion, a distant voice in the small speaker of a cellphone. “A bunch of people inside of a poor environment with no jobs, no education, no programs, with little to no hope — you’re going to have chaos.”

The “after prison” group decides to make a short film about a character who’s a composite of the inmates.

“They expect a level of perfection of us, even on parole, instead of working with us and having us be molded back into society,” says Denatian Kent — whose release date is in 2042, when he’ll be 68. “Why do you expect something so perfect from people whom you’ve shown to be imperfect?”

The “before” group spends the penultimate class affirming the need for role models.

“You’ll be amazed at the people who never left inner-city D.C. or inner-city Baltimore,” Tray says. “People who want to be an astronaut but have never seen one.”

“The Obamas are my mentors,” Rashema says. “ ‘If they’re black, I can do that.’ When I have people like that in my circle, that pushes me.”

“We have a shortage of mentors,” says sophomore Brian Shulman, “not a shortage of people to mentor.”

“Without hope and knowing the future can be better,” Tray says, “you won’t believe in anything.”


A Jessup correctional officer peeks into the class. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

Professor Howard adjusts the microphone.

“One of tonight’s objectives is to bring the Jessup students to you in a more personal way than would otherwise be possible,” he says to a couple hundred people in a Georgetown auditorium at the end of April. “And that really gets to the underlying message of this project and of this event, which is that behind prison walls lies a largely unknown and unappreciated humanity.”

Each group delivers a presentation. The “before” group notes that the poverty rate among African American children is 40 percent, while it’s under 10 among white children. The “inside” group stresses the need for mental-health counseling and an average minimum wage for prisoners higher than 93 cents a day. The “after” group laments the lack of transparency in the parole process.

For two hours the incarcerated students of GOVX-400 are free, in a way. Their recorded voices are piped into the auditorium.

“I accept that poverty is the most violent thing you can inflict upon anybody,” says Tray, accounting for his fate, during the “before” presentation. “When I came to prison I was just reminded of how inhuman I am, and how inhuman I had to behave if I wanted to survive.”

There are family members of Jessup inmates throughout the audience. After the presentations, the microphone is passed around to them.

“We all deserve a second chance,” says 34-year-old Ebony Vauss, whose father, Harlow, a regular in Marc’s classes, has been in prison since she was 2 months old. “I petition everyone else who’s here to take this information today to advocate.”

Rashema is overcome by the attendance of family members. She takes the microphone and mentions her brother.

“I feel what you guys feel,” she says from the stage, shedding a tear.

She knows she had second chances, but East Baltimore in the 1980s, she thinks, is no different than Southeast D.C. in 2016. Too many dead ends. Too many easy ways to hard time.

She found books, then Marc Howard’s class. Tray found Fat Larry. Life’s not fair. But, as she told Tray, you’ve gotta muster that into power and push.

And so, like her professor once did, Rashema formed a plan: to major in criminal justice, to move toward a career in law enforcement, to eventually be a humanizing force for good on the inside. But from the stage at Georgetown, addressing one world from another, she was just a sophomore making a promise.

“I really want to become a mentor to people,” she tells the audience. “For me, this is definitely the beginning.” ■

Dan Zak is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, email wpmagazine@washpost.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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Georgetown professor Marc Howard and his students leave Jessup correctional facility after a class with their Jessup counterparts. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

story by Dan Zak

photographs by Lucian Perkins

Tray and Rashema are at it again.

“My mom, she didn’t drink while I was in her womb,” Tray says. “She protected me while I was there and — ”

“Okay, pause,” says Rashema to the convicted murderer who’s 27 years older. “This sounds bad, but does it matter?”

“I’ve got to navigate this life,” says Tray. “And if I hate you — ”

“You curvin’,” Rashema says.

“Every day I fight them negative emotions, or they kill me in here,” Tray says, reminding everyone that this classroom is in a prison. “If I don’t fight them I’ll have dope tracks up and down my arms.”

“Do you think — ”

“She was pregnant at 13,” Tray says, leaning in on the plastic brown chair, “and the man she loved got murdered by police at 15.”

“How many teenage mothers are out there?” Rashema says from the chair opposite him, their classmates and professor listening, inmates yelling in the hall. “How many have fathers who are dead? You gotta be strong. You gotta think, ‘I’m gonna do something that gets me past this and doesn’t get me back in this predicament.’ You gotta take the pain and sorry, and you’ve gotta muster that into power and push.”

Tray is dumbstruck. The overhead lights are shiny stripes on his bald head. He folds his arms against this young woman in the black boots, this 20-year-old college sophomore with the pink pencil, this outsider who speaks his language, knows his world and is testing his prison psychology degree.


Georgetown students Madeline Silva (left) and Rashema Melson (right) discuss with a Jessup inmate how to prevent youth from ending up in prison. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

In this class of 31, the students share a hunger for learning, a nimble sense of humor, a desire to fix the problems of the world.

About half the classmates are convicted felons: murderers or would-be murderers, all black but one, and nearly all serving the equivalent of life sentences. The other half are mostly white women from Georgetown University, where their lives are just beginning.

“We’re at a unique moment,” says the professor, Marc Howard, to his students during the first class in late January. “For 40 years the policy has been ‘more incarceration.’ But now both sides are almost united on the need for reform.”

This spring 2016 college course is coded GOVX-400, wherein the “X” could stand for “experiment,” but the professor refers to it as the Prison Reform Project. The idea is that the inmates’ experiences and the Georgetowners’ scholarship will yield proposals to reform each phase of the criminal-justice system. Howard’s other goal is to humanize the inmates, give them a voice, share their insight during a public presentation at the end of the semester.

Their classroom is a bright room with cinder-block walls in Jessup Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Maryland with 1,656 inmates.

It’s snowing when the first class begins in January, but in the prison there’s no hint of the outside world. There is only fluorescence and loud whirring fans and drinking water that tastes like metal. The students sit in a circle and introduce themselves. The Georgetowners say their names, where they’re from.

Ali from Connecticut is working with an after-school program for teens caught up in the court system.

Madeline from New Hampshire and Andrew from Upstate New York led an alternative spring break trip that included a stop at Sing Sing.

Queen from the Bronx is writing her senior thesis on the war on drugs.

They each explain why they’re here. The Jessup men do not. The Jessup men explain where they are trying to get to.

Abu, 43 and in prison since he was 17, just wrote a bill for the Maryland legislature to reform juvenile sentencing laws.

Hekima, 33 and in prison since 2004, is studying to be a counselor.

Avion, 37 and incarcerated since 17, aspires to be a published writer.

Tray wraps up introductions with a note of caution.

“I didn’t get here by being innocent,” Tray says. “It’s a reality we have to face: Sometimes we do some brutal, cruel things, and maybe you should never go home. That voice should be heard as well.”

When the professor asks his students to raise their hands if they have family in prison, many Jessup men do. Only one Georgetown student does: Rashema Melson .


Rashema Melson is overcome with emotion by the attendance of inmates’ family members during the class’s presentation on prison reform at Georgetown University. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

The homeless valedictorian. That’s what Rashema became when she graduated top of her high school class while living in the shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital, where raccoons skittered through the halls. Then she got a full ride to Georgetown, and the media stamped her as the ultimate success story: She was one of 1.36 million homeless students in U.S. public schools, but now she was headed for a prestigious hometown university.

From birth, Rashema seemed bound for a certain life. Before she was a year old, her drug-dealing father was shot to death. She grew up all over Southeast Washington, then in Ohio, then Maryland. She went to 10 grade schools. She felt no sense of home, no sense of purpose.

And then she found books. Nothing high-minded. The “Goosebumps” series by R.L. Stine. The romances of Nora Roberts. In those pages was evidence that there were worlds beyond her own. If she wanted out, it was on her.

She went to three high schools, finally settling at Anacostia and deciding to work her way past bullying, alcohol, the D’s and F’s on her report card. Her family wound up in the shelter at D.C. General. Cold showers. No sheets. But by then she had a growing collection of honor-roll certificates.

She pushed her grade-point average to a 4.0. And then, in spring 2014, she was in a bright red graduation gown on a stage in front of hundreds.

“Throughout my journey here I have learned that time does not wait, pity or adjust for — or to — anyone,” she said at the microphone. “And life is not fair. Life is not fair.”

Her brother, in trouble with the law since 2012, was arrested that summer for a home invasion and armed robbery; he was trying to steal basketball shoes that he lost in a bet. Rashema enrolled in Marc Howard’s Prison and Punishment class in fall 2015, around the time her brother was sentenced to 12 years, and then GOVX-400 in January 2016. And there — at the prison holding her brother — she met Arlando “Tray” Jones III, who had spent 31 years inside the system she was trying to understand.


Georgetown students Brian Shulman (left) and Queen Adesuyi, along with the rest of their class, walk through Jessup Correctional Institution. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

The students are split into three groups: before prison, inside prison and after prison.

Tray and Rashema are both assigned to the “before” group, whose job is to explore how young people end up in prison and then brainstorm ways to curb that fate. By the second class, in February, the two of them are in a rolling debate about nature vs. nurture and destiny vs. willpower.

“Answer this question,” Rashema tells Tray. “What pushes you more than the hardships you face? If there’s nothing to push you, you’ll stay mediocre.”

“I told you last week what pushes me,” Tray says. “When someone befriends me I’m gonna be a better friend to you than you will ever be. That’s what makes me get up in the morning. I’m not guilty of this murder. The one I got found guilty of is the one I didn’t do, but if I take on the bitterness and hatred — ”

“That’s not what I said,” Rashema says, exasperated. “Every time! I think you need therapy. You need to work this out. Because every time I ask you about what it is, you go right back to those three people: mom, 13 and pregnant, dad shot 15 times ...”

“The last thing I want is pity,” Tray says.

“This is my point!” Rashema says, throwing her hands up. “You were in a situation and was pushed because of the circumstance you’re in. I get that, and that’s where we cut it off and work with you. We over that now.”


Portrait of Jessup inmate Arlando "Tray" Jones in the prison library, with one of his favorite books, Charles Dickens's "A Tale of Two Cities." (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

Arlando “Tray” Jones was a trigger boy for a drug kingpin in the early ’80s. His mother was 14 when she had him, in the ashes of the ’68 Baltimore riots, and she left him in the care of her sisters. When he was 18 months old, his father was killed during a robbery. Tray started stealing from bodegas when he was 7 years old.

His family house was in East Baltimore, in a hive of open-air drug markets. Tired of living day-to-day by shoplifting booty, Tray persuaded his hustling partner to buy a half-pound of weed.

Now a rookie dealer, Tray was first picked up by the police at age 12. He fought classmates. He got a gun. He found a hero in a narcotics dealer named Fat Larry, who drove a gray Cadillac with a red-leather interior. Tray started working at his stash houses, earning $300 a night, and he shot and nearly killed a man during a drug-related argument when he was 13 .

He didn’t feel responsible. He was the product of an environment, he thought. He spent two months at the Maryland Training School for Boys, a juvenile detention center that prepared him more for a life inside the criminal justice system, he says, than a life outside it. Landing in a group home, he started moving cocaine by the kilogram. He carved out his own territory in East Baltimore, around Rutland Avenue and East Eager Street. He settled disputes with bullets. He was in eighth grade.

“A number of black mothers and fathers curse the day I was born because I brought such grief to their lives,” Tray would write years later, in prison.

At 16 he was arrested, charged, convicted of murder and, in 1985, sentenced to life in prison. He accepted his fate and vowed to make something of himself in prison. He finished his high school equivalency in ’87. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in applied psychology in ’94. In longhand and then on a typewriter, he wrote a memoir titled “Eager Street.” He studied poetry and philosophy, which put into words his angst and fear and lust for power. Then Marc Howard began teaching a criminal justice course at Jessup. Tray saw a chance to ground his lofty literary knowledge in the structural problems of his own world.

“I can’t believe you’re older than me,” Rashema says, frustrated that Tray doesn’t share her philosophy of self-reliance. “How do you not understand?”

“Because you at the point in life where you know everything,” Tray says, “but the older you get, the less you do. When I was 18, 19, I knew everything.”

“I know what love is because growing up I didn’t feel good,” Rashema says. “That made me hate myself, and be a bully. I had to learn to love myself, and when you learn to love yourself you learn to love others.”

“I get you. I know where you’re at. I know bitterness.”

Rashema’s eyes flare. “I’m not bitter.”

“Bitterness, hatefulness and resentment will eat through any vessel that tries to contain it,” Tray says. “As humans we are migratory creatures — ”

“I think it’s something in yourself you haven’t seen yet.”

“I’ve been in prison since I was 16 years old, so there’s a lot of things I can’t find. Growing up in a Maryland penitentiary, you mature differently. ... Jails, ghettos — they take our humanity away.”


Georgetown professor Marc Howard teaches his first joint class with Georgetown students and Jessup Correctional Institutional students at the Jessup facility. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

In the summer after eighth grade , when he traveled with his Long Island soccer team to London, Marc Howard and a teammate got caught shoplifting CDs. They were taken by British police to a holding cell for several hours. Before driving them back to their hotel, officers explained that their criminal record would be expunged when they were 17.

“I have often reflected back onto a time when my life trajectory could have gone in a different direction,” Howard would write later. “And I’ve realized that I did not embody my foolish actions, and most importantly that I was fortunate that they did not come to define me. I got a ‘second chance,’ and I made the most of it.”

Prison reform turned into a vocation for Howard through the case of his high school classmate Marty Tankleff, whose coerced confession to the murder of his parents landed him in prison for 17 years. After visiting him in 2004, Howard promised that he would never stop helping to win Tankleff’s release, and that he would continue prison work after that.

After years of work by a support team, Tankleff was exonerated and released in 2007. In 2012 Howard got his law degree from Georgetown and later began teaching at Jessup. He wanted to see the inside of the prison system and understand its flaws.

Why does the United States have nearly 25 percent of the world’s inmates when it has only 5 percent of its total population?

Why has the U.S. incarceration rate ballooned nearly 320 percent since 1978?

Why are juveniles able to be sentenced to life without parole?

Howard found his incarcerated students to be like Tankleff: gentle, joyful and wanting to taste the outside world, and exert some influence over it, from the 65 square feet of their shared cells.

About 150 Georgetown students applied to be in GOVX-400. Howard picked 15 who demonstrated a familiarity with and passion for the subject.

He hoped that they would see past the inmates’ backgrounds and appearances, that all the students would see each other as a human being. Then, during freewheeling group discussions, Howard would watch Rashema and Tray bring it to another level. They were like two versions of the same person who were debating each other’s shared past and divergent futures. Somewhere in that debate was a solution, or at least a revelation.


Georgetown professor Marc Howard and his students wait after being searched to go through more security doors at Jessup. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

Six times over the semester, the chosen 15 make the 60-minute drive from the Georgetown campus, with its manicured lawns and handsome Gothic architecture, to Jessup, where they enter a world of rusty iron, razor wire and irritable corrections officers.

“Buy some baggy pants,” a female officer snaps as they go through security for their fourth class in mid-March. “Call ’em your jail pants. You don’t want them having dreams and nasty thoughts about you.”

The inmates in GOVX-400 are gentlemen during class. They revere Howard and treat the women like queens. They are also considered violent criminals. They are defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done. All it takes is Googling to see that one sweet and grandfatherly inmate, for example, bludgeoned his wife to death.

“I’ve been on a philosophical kick lately,” says senior Andrew Debraggio to his “inside prison” group during one class. “How do you define freedom?”

His incarcerated group members answer, one by one.

“Freedom’s a state of mind,” says Turk, who spent 20 of his 34 years in prison in solitary confinement.

“Even when I was home I didn’t feel free,” says Bobby, who entered prison at 15 and then taught himself to read.

Their time together is precious: only a couple of hours a handful of times over four months. It’s enough time to get acquainted, to share life experiences, to despair over systemic problems. But is it enough time to craft something that has any impact on the real world?


In the class’s presentation, Rashema Melson speaks emotionally about her brother, who is incarcerated at Jessup. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

The “inside prison” group starts making a podcast called “If Walls Could Talk,” featuring phone interviews with the inmates on topics such as overcrowding, mental health and solitary confinement. On a Tuesday evening in early March, the Georgetown students huddle in an audio room at the campus library and take a call from Avion, whose release date is 2043, when he’ll be 65.

“Why does overcrowding lead to violence?” asks Helen Brosnan, a senior government major from New York.

“Basically it’s the same way in the streets,” says Avion, a distant voice in the small speaker of a cellphone. “A bunch of people inside of a poor environment with no jobs, no education, no programs, with little to no hope — you’re going to have chaos.”

The “after prison” group decides to make a short film about a character who’s a composite of the inmates.

“They expect a level of perfection of us, even on parole, instead of working with us and having us be molded back into society,” says Denatian Kent — whose release date is in 2042, when he’ll be 68. “Why do you expect something so perfect from people whom you’ve shown to be imperfect?”

The “before” group spends the penultimate class affirming the need for role models.

“You’ll be amazed at the people who never left inner-city D.C. or inner-city Baltimore,” Tray says. “People who want to be an astronaut but have never seen one.”

“The Obamas are my mentors,” Rashema says. “ ‘If they’re black, I can do that.’ When I have people like that in my circle, that pushes me.”

“We have a shortage of mentors,” says sophomore Brian Shulman, “not a shortage of people to mentor.”

“Without hope and knowing the future can be better,” Tray says, “you won’t believe in anything.”


A Jessup correctional officer peeks into the class. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

Professor Howard adjusts the microphone.

“One of tonight’s objectives is to bring the Jessup students to you in a more personal way than would otherwise be possible,” he says to a couple hundred people in a Georgetown auditorium at the end of April. “And that really gets to the underlying message of this project and of this event, which is that behind prison walls lies a largely unknown and unappreciated humanity.”

Each group delivers a presentation. The “before” group notes that the poverty rate among African American children is 40 percent, while it’s under 10 among white children. The “inside” group stresses the need for mental-health counseling and an average minimum wage for prisoners higher than 93 cents a day. The “after” group laments the lack of transparency in the parole process.

For two hours the incarcerated students of GOVX-400 are free, in a way. Their recorded voices are piped into the auditorium.

“I accept that poverty is the most violent thing you can inflict upon anybody,” says Tray, accounting for his fate, during the “before” presentation. “When I came to prison I was just reminded of how inhuman I am, and how inhuman I had to behave if I wanted to survive.”

There are family members of Jessup inmates throughout the audience. After the presentations, the microphone is passed around to them.

“We all deserve a second chance,” says 34-year-old Ebony Vauss, whose father, Harlow, a regular in Marc’s classes, has been in prison since she was 2 months old. “I petition everyone else who’s here to take this information today to advocate.”

Rashema is overcome by the attendance of family members. She takes the microphone and mentions her brother.

“I feel what you guys feel,” she says from the stage, shedding a tear.

She knows she had second chances, but East Baltimore in the 1980s, she thinks, is no different than Southeast D.C. in 2016. Too many dead ends. Too many easy ways to hard time.

She found books, then Marc Howard’s class. Tray found Fat Larry. Life’s not fair. But, as she told Tray, you’ve gotta muster that into power and push.

And so, like her professor once did, Rashema formed a plan: to major in criminal justice, to move toward a career in law enforcement, to eventually be a humanizing force for good on the inside. But from the stage at Georgetown, addressing one world from another, she was just a sophomore making a promise.

“I really want to become a mentor to people,” she tells the audience. “For me, this is definitely the beginning.” ■

Dan Zak is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, email wpmagazine@washpost.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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