Thursday, February 15, 2018


By Lauren O’Dell

In 2009, I was awarded the Sunshine Scholarship, which would cover books and tuition for an Associate’s Degree in General Studies. I had no idea how transformative college would be.

After high school, I went to a local community college and, like much else in my life at that time, I didn’t take school seriously. My focus was on the present moment, not the future. I dropped out after one semester, found a job, and, well, life happened in all sorts of crazy ways. Fast forward to 2009 and there I was, staring at a memo about applying for a scholarship. By this time, I had already done 19-years in prison and the idea of something new was very appealing.

Prison is one of the most mundane places there are. Despite the changing faces, different attitudes, and varied backgrounds, there is a routine that beats on. Every day count is at the same time, meals are at the same time, classes and programs are at the same time. It’s ‘Toilet Paper Monday!’, ‘Library Wednesday!’, or ‘Fried Fish Friday!’ There’s not much variety in prison, even here at FCCW [Fluvanna Correctional Centre for Women], where we’ve had some BIG scandals -- ones that shook the walls. When the dust settled, the routine beat on.

I believe having something to look forward to, and hang a little hope on, a goal to work toward, is vital for an inmate. Until the scholarship, there wasn’t anything of substance, at least for me. From the first moment of the first class I could feel the difference. The professor was relaxed, open, and interested in us. It’s amazing the number of people who work or volunteer here but act like they are scared to talk to an inmate. Didn’t they know that was going to come up? But not this professor, or any that followed. For 90-minutes we discussed how the class would go, the syllabus, the material, and our hopes and expectations. It felt surreal, this experience. We were having substantive conversation and none of it pertained to the dysfunction known as Fluvanna. I didn’t want it to end. That night it took me hours to get to sleep. My classmates felt the same way. They, too, were excited, stirred by the hope that something bigger than ourselves was at play in our lives.

After several years of hard work and an incredible journey, my class graduated in 2013. All 25 of us graduated with Honors. It was one of my proudest moments and what made it all the more special was that the people I love most in the world were there to share it with me. My entire family was allowed to come to the ceremony. That, for me, made it all worthwhile.

Now that I have the luxury of hindsight, I can look back and see what education means to me. Education means options that didn’t previously exist. When you have choices, you don’t feel stuck. You don’t feel excluded. I now have better job choices because of my degree. After graduation, I took a bold step and attempted to create a job position that previously didn’t exist. Having four-years of professors and faculty believe we could each do anything we put our minds to empowered me to take the chance. It paid off. My request was met with overwhelming approval and, Pow!, just like that, I had the job.

The education I so generously received came with expectations. Our benefactor, Doris Buffett, spoke with us shortly after the college program began. She said we each must pay something forward in years to come, that the opportunity to help others would present itself and, when it did, we must step forward and do so. I took those words to heart. She also sent each of us a copy of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor. By the time I was halfway through, I knew I wanted to share the book with others so that it would have the impact with them that it did with me. The conversation with Ms. Buffett, the book, and the sense that I could do anything, all led me to creating a way to help those who were normally excluded from mainstream opportunities here.

Education has meant better conversations, a respect for the past, hope for the future, and a sense of understanding that I didn’t have before. I know more, therefore, I can express more. Some things that now make sense were once muddled or confusing. I even recognize what the guys on the ‘Big Bang Theory’ are saying! I may not understand it all, but some of it now sounds familiar.

Education has meant outrage. Outrage that we have come so far, yet are still stuck in many ways. Outrage that so many still can’t go to college; that this awesome opportunity isn’t a reality for every single person who wants it. Outrage that kids and families go into debt, simply because they dare to be better, to do better.

Education has meant vision. It opened me up to a world I knew existed, yet knew little about. I see the world through the lens of someone who is screaming for change. I see our collective history and am simultaneously proud and appalled. I see oppression, advocacy, discrimination, justice, mercy, racism, all playing out at the same time. These new visions are shaping me, making me want to protest, inform… change things.

Education has improved my odds. I’m now on the good side of statistics. Evidence shows that inmates who participate in vocational training and programming have better overall chances of success upon release. Those odds increase when an inmate goes to college. Our program has been in existence since 2009. Around 60 women have graduated with Associate Degrees. Those who have been released haven’t returned. Another way to put this is: the college program at FCCW, funded by the Sunshine Foundation, correlates with a 0% recidivism rate for its participants.

Education has inspired me to keep going. After four-years of a packed schedule, research papers, studying, and test taking, I thought it would be a relief to not have this responsibility anymore. How wrong I was. After a few months, I began feeling the urge to continue. I knew I wasn’t done. My Associate degree just scratched the surface of what I wanted to learn. I knew there was more out there and I was determined to find it. I found a four-year school with a degree program, enrolled, and was accepted. My parents have generously and graciously funded several classes for me.

I am working on a B.A. in Government and Sociology. Now that my classes are slightly streamlined, I’m seeing new worlds, concepts and processes. It’s amazing, exhausting, humbling, a bit overwhelming at times, but I wouldn’t trade it in for anything.

Education has made me proud. I’ve accomplished and participated in something bigger than myself. I’ve worked hard and it’s paying off. Despite not having laptops or internet, and with limited resources, we all pulled it off. We stayed up late and got up early to write papers. We argued, debated, got jealous. We cheered each other on and never let anyone feel left behind. We had one another’s backs. And, on Graduation Day, we were beaming with pride. We were proud of one another and ourselves. But the best part was sharing that pride with our families.

Education has made me aware, or more accurately, heightened my awareness. As a woman in this country, I am now acutely aware of sexism in the workplace, and gender discrimination in the media (and in women’s prisons, but that’s another story).  I understand the patriarchal system of oppression, and the fact that there are large numbers of men in this country who are committed to controlling women’s reproduction. Before education, I simply said: “That’s just the way it is.” After education, I say: “Are you friggin’ kidding me?! Never settle, always push back.” That’s what an education did for me.

So, I’m proud, persistent, aware, more articulate, outraged, and have options and a vision of where I’ve been and where I need to go. It’s a beautiful thing, this education. I never want it to end. Maybe I’m just a nerd at heart, but I can’t imagine a time in my life where I won’t be learning or growing. I see myself at the age of 90, in a senior center, taking workshops on geriatric yoga or “How to Pick the Best Life Alert System.”

I have to go work on a paper for my Criminal Justice class now. The name of this class? “Women, Crime, and the Law!” Perfect.

Lauren O'Dell 1181196
Fluvanna Correctional Center
P.O. Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974
My name is Lauren O’Dell and I have been incarcerated since 1994.  Throughout this time, I have consistently worked, taken classes, stayed connected with my family, and tried to be an active participant in bettering the community in which I live.  In 2013 I earned as Associate Degree in General Studies and am currently working on a B.A. Government and Sociology.  I’m an activist at heart.  Upon my release, I would like to work with refugees and immigrants new to the country.  In the mean time, I continue to support, and in my own small way, fight for all human rights.


porky2017 said...

congrats on your degree,you can be anythimg you put your mind to..

Jason Thomas Bell said...

Not to take away from this excellent post, but I just heard about the clemency board's decision to commute the sentence of Thomas Whitaker. Couldn't wait to come here and comment. The saga continues. It'll be interesting to see what kind of precedent this begins for the parole board.

Bridge Mulhall said...

Congratulations. All prisoners should have access to education. Much cheaper than recidivism.