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Tolstoy behind bars: Why U-Va. students are reading Russian literature in a prison

University of Virginia students Josh Pritchett, left, and Amelia Wald take part in an April discussion of Russian literature with Lance Elliott, center left, and Joseph Mitchell at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Richmond. (Timothy C. Wright for The Washington Post)

When his University of Virginia classmates discussed the story of a peasant woman who found joy amid pain and isolation, Josh Pritchett didn’t say anything.

That’s because he was flashing back to his time in the hole, to being locked in solitary confinement for violent fights. So while the others talked about symbolism in 19th-century Russian literature, he was thinking about how, with the passage of days in that cold cell, dreams became beautiful, and anger faded into serenity.

This spring, Pritchett went back behind bars — by choice. When he did, he showed the unexpected reach and powerful consequences an idea can have. He thought he knew a thing or two about redemption. But he also learned how relevant, and powerful, the past can be.

Pritchett was taking a Russian literature class at U-Va. that pairs students from the elite campus with inmates at a juvenile detention center. Together, they tackle works by authors such as Chek­hov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy.

"Seats at the Table” is a documentary which explores a college class which connects university students with prisoners of a maximum security juvenile facility. (Video: Rosalia Films)

Once a week, the U-Va. students get patted down by guards behind razor wire and hear the crash of the metal door locking behind them.

* * *

Josh Pritchett learned to drive by stealing cars. By the time he was 17, he had created his own character — a hardened, weary kid ricocheting from house to group house to jail. His close friends were living the same repetitive, empty chapters: drugs, fights, anger, boredom.

When he was finally taken away from his Virginia high school in handcuffs, he was conscious of a strange sense of relief: He could stop trying to evade the inevitable ending.

After his conviction, he was temporarily assigned to a building on the grounds of the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Richmond, while officials finished his intake paperwork. Looking out his cell window at the low brick buildings and high fences of Bon Air, he felt the growing terror and certainty that he had become voiceless, powerless, trapped. He was locked in.

It was a feeling he remembered viscerally years later, at the University of Virginia, in the weeks before he was to go back to Bon Air with the other students.

He kept having the same nightmare, more and more often as the class began. In his dreams, he was back in that cell, waiting.

He would wake up in the middle of the night at U-Va., heart pounding, asking a desperate question out loud: “Why am I here?”

His mind kept racing in class, too. They read a Turgenev story, “A Living Relic,” about a young peasant woman confined to a one-room cabin, bedridden after being stricken with an illness. She was able to find joy despite her loss, in the sound of bees humming in their hive, in the glimpse of a soft wild rabbit, in her abiding faith and in her vivid, transporting dreams.

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Every part of it reminded Pritchett of being in solitary confinement, sleeping and sleeping, hoping for an escape through dreams. “I remember looking out of my little slit of a window, tracing my finger on the pattern of the trees off in the distance, looking at the clouds,” he said, “and getting pleasure out of that.”

When he told his U-Va. classmates about his past, his voice was shaking.

But after the initial shock, his classmates offered their own revelations: One talked about a family member in prison. Another spoke of depression. A first-year student confided that she hadn’t felt comfortable on campus, because everyone seemed so wealthy and privileged.

“It was exceptionally intimate,” said Andrew Kaufman, the U-Va. faculty member who created the class.

Kaufman quoted Tolstoy: “Man is flowing. In him there are all possibilities: He was stupid, now he is clever; he was evil, now he is good, and the other way around. In this is the greatness of man.”

* * *

Russian literature might seem like an esoteric choice for forging bonds among 19-year-olds. But the questions the stories raise about life and death can be startling, even revelatory. And with everyone involved jolted out of the routine, there’s a vulnerability that fosters connections.

The U-Va. class is featured in a documentary and in a forthcoming book about how college courses should be revolutionized. It prompted conversations about how to change juvenile justice, too.

At its core, Kaufman said, it’s about making meaning for oneself.

It forces people to rethink what’s possible in their lives, said Andrew Block, director of Virginia’s Department of Juvenile Justice. “We’re trying to help the young people in the system change their stories.”

Just after Pritchett was transferred to an adult jail, years ago, his former cellmate took the Russian literature class. He wrote to Pritchett about some of the questions it had raised for him, about spirituality, death, the meaning of life.

Pritchett was asking his own tough questions. And he remembered those letters years later, when he was out of jail, working hard, taking community college classes and praying for redemption.

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He had already proved himself to the hardware store that risked hiring him. He had become a leader at work, in the classroom, at his church, someone deeply interested in how to motivate people and how to keep changing his own future.

After he was accepted and enrolled at U-Va.’s McIntire School of Commerce, he applied to take Kaufman’s class. About 60 students typically write essays in hopes of participating in the seminar of about 14 people. At 26, Pritchett found it unexpectedly easy to respond to a Russian verse about solitude. “Something in the poem surfaced in me a struggle for control versus trusting God,” Pritchett said.

That’s how he forced himself past the razor wire this winter, using his faith to walk, step by unwilling step, into Bon Air.

Once inside, telling people about his past was easy.

He and Amelia Wald, a U-Va. junior, were partnered with 19-year-old Lance Elliott and 20-year-old Joseph Mitchell. Pritchett immediately told them: I know about this life, because I was one of you guys.

“They almost fell out of their chairs,” Wald said.

* * *

One afternoon this spring, Pritchett leaned forward in a plastic chair, elbows on his knees, ready to talk about stories. A loud mechanical buzzing filled the fluorescent-lit cinder-block room that served as a makeshift classroom, along with laughter and chatter from students gathered in small groups. Elliott and Mitchell, in their almost identical state-issued clothes and close-shorn hair, held copies of the readings.

After talking about a short story, they read aloud the letter a woman wrote to her husband in a Soviet prison camp, somewhere unknown.

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Elliott and Mitchell listened carefully to a passage from the letter, their heads tilted, leaning forward: “I understand so clearly, and ache from the pain of it, that those winter days with all their troubles were the greatest and last happiness to be granted us in life.”

“That’s deep,” Elliott said. “Writing a letter knowing you can’t send it — that’s love.”

Pritchett, in jeans and unlaced high-top sneakers, read: “My every thought is about you. My every tear and every smile is for you. I bless every day and every hour of our bitter life together, my sweetheart, my —”

“I’m going to use this,” Mitchell said, and the others laughed.

“I’m dead serious,” he said. “I’m just, flip it around a little bit.”

“You’re getting moves from Russian writers!” Wald teased him.

He shook his head and smiled. “This is going to get me married!”

Pritchett read on: “Now I weep, and weep, and weep.”

“Damn,” Elliott said. Long pause. “I enjoyed that, for real — that’s a deep love.”

He and Mitchell talked about letters they had written that made them cry — one to an ex-girlfriend, one apologizing to a family member for the hurt he had caused with his crimes.

Pritchett had written about his little sister visiting him when he was locked up — 8 years old, getting patted down by guards.

Elliott nodded. “Writing’s a powerful tool. Powerful.”

Sometimes, they laughed so hard they had to wipe away tears. Sometimes, they were so serious they had to stop short to keep from choking up.

Kaufman interrupted all the conversations: “Security is coming in a few minutes. Got to wrap it up.”

* * *

As the guards led Pritchett and the rest of the class away, Mitchell was silent. He had just lost a family member a few days before. In the hours before the U-Va. students arrived, he had been withdrawn, torn up about the death and having to miss the funeral.

But he remembered how when he read “A Living Relic,” it clicked for him that some people could endure the unthinkable by choosing to find joy in life. He thought about the people he loves, feeling grateful. And he thought, “I need this class.”

Mitchell said he’ll think about it when times get hard for him on the outside, as Pritchett had told them they would, as they work to change their futures. “I’ll write it on my desk or in my car: ‘Living Relic.’ I’ll look at it on the dashboard.”

“I might get that tattooed,” he said. “I’ll always remember that.”

Talking to Pritchett had strengthened his resolve to get a job at the shipyard when he’s released, go to college.

“He didn’t have to do this,” Mitchell said. “He didn’t have to come back and tell us his story.”

* * *

After class, the U-Va. students walked to their cars, next to the line of inmates being led back to their units.

The only thing separating them was the fence, Pritchett thought.

The U-Va. students were laughing and talking about where to get ice cream.

Pritchett found his thoughts spiraling around the line separating the two groups.

“Anyone I’m helping is who I used to be and who I still am,” Pritchett said. “And this matters more than anything else I could do.”

Wald was grateful for the ways Elliott and Mitchell had helped her. “I felt more comfortable being vulnerable and sharing my mental-health struggles with our group at Bon Air than with some of my oldest friends,” Wald said. She had told them about the aftermath of a serious spinal injury when a pickup truck slammed into her during her first year at U-Va.

“A Living Relic” had resonated with her, too, especially after hearing Mitchell and Elliott talk about it. “I should be looking at suffering as a way to grow and to learn.”

For his final paper for the class, Pritchett wrote about how intensely surreal the semester had been, confronting a past self he had been trying to bury for years.

That was true from the beginning right up until the very end, just days before Pritchett left for his summer internship with an investment firm in Manhattan. When the final paper was due, Kaufman shared an essay written by a former U-Va. student as a model. Pritchett found, to his shock, that the student had written about her experience with some of his friends from behind bars.

He remembered playing table tennis with one of them, celebrating birthdays and Christmases with him. The other was his celly, someone who had shared his tiny single-man cell for about eight months, the same friend who wrote to Pritchett years ago about studying Russian literature.

The visits to Bon Air, and seeing those names, made Pritchett miss them, miss that part of himself. When he reached out to one of them — a friend he remembered laughing with as they sang rap lyrics, arms thrown around each other’s shoulders — he learned the friend had been killed in the years after his release, while Pritchett was pushing his past away.

Pritchett had forgotten where he had come from, he realized, like a character in a Russian novel. He felt how finite life is. He knew how to watch for the clouds drifting by the slit of a window, to find freedom and beauty even in the darkest moments, even in isolation.

“It’s not over,” Pritchett said. “I don’t know what next year is going to hold or the next five years. The story’s going to continue.”

Pritchett turned to his final paper. “This class,” he wrote, “has been nuts.”