Sara’s Summer Scholars experience brought her out of the classroom and into Pennsylvania’s prisons.
The Summer Scholars Program allows for students to apply to work on different research projects on campus over the summer. If accepted to the program, students are assigned to the project that corresponds with their major. Of any opportunity I have been given while attending Saint Joe’s, the Summer Scholars program has been the greatest. It has so far been the best opportunity for me to learn through experience and gain skills that I will use in the future. It has also taught me more about my life outside of my work than I had originally anticipated. As a Communications major, I applied for what is known as the Redemption Project, which works to tell the stories, from a journalistic perspective, of juveniles sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole.
Juvenile life without parole has been a controversial subject for some time considering the US is the only country in the world where it exists, and most states have already outlawed it. Pennsylvania is one of only 7 states in the country where juvenile life without parole is legal, and of the 2200 juvenile lifers nationwide, 300 are in Philadelphia. When I was first accepted to the program, I was excited to be involved in something that was making a change and working to portray these stories in a way that they never had been before. I knew I would be pointed in the right direction with Dr. Mike Lyons, a Communications professor and my academic advisor, as my mentor on the project. On my first day Mike told me about a film festival in Washington DC every fall that focuses on student films about social justice, and suggested the idea of me making a film. I could not wait to get started. However, I learned quickly that the process is actually very complicated. There was a lot of research to be done and a lot to be thought out before I was going out with my camera and shooting anything.
Since the films in the festival are only 8 minutes long, Mike suggested I focus on only one story. He told me stories about men that he had worked with at Graterford State Correctional Institution (SCI Graterford), and offered to give me any of the research he had already done about them. After listening to these stories, I told him that I would honestly rather tell a story about a woman. I thought that I would feel a stronger connection to the woman I could potentially have to contact and interview. However, the main reason was that as a woman, I am conscious of the problematic way in which the media portrays women and the importance of combating that with more diverse stories that show the humanity and the agency of the women in them. As a storyteller, I understand how imperative it is to represent the people that the mainstream is marginalizing. Mike told me the story of a woman serving life in Muncy State Correctional Institution who had been sentenced to life without parole 23 years ago when she was just 16 years old. I contacted this woman and waited hopefully for a response for more than two weeks. In that time, I drove to her hometown in Lancaster County and did research on her case. I felt like a detective.
Just when I was starting to feel discouraged, I received a letter in the mail marked “Inmate Mail Department of Corrections.” My hands were shaking as I held the envelope in my hand. I took a deep breath, and prepared myself for a rejection. Why should she want to be involved? It’s not like she had much to gain from it. I slowly opened the envelope and pulled out a piece of paper with writing on both sides. I knew then that the answer was not “no.” As soon as I began reading the letter, I was overwhelmed by my emotions. The woman who I had spent the last two weeks learning about was writing to me. She was a real person, not just a name in the newspaper articles I had read. And the tragedy I had read so much about had actually happened. It was a powerful realization.
After that I wrote her back immediately, and since then I have corresponded with her twice. As of now, she still wants to be involved, and we are slowly working our way towards an interview. It may not sound like a particularly moving story, but it was the first time I had made a connection with someone whose life is completely different than mine. I could never imagine growing up in a prison, and yet somehow there seems to be something relatable about her kindness and openness to share her story with me. This experience has already taught me more than I could have imagined, and I would not have had the opportunity if it were not for Summer Scholars.
Sara Leonetti is a rising senior from Philadelphia. She’s a Communications major with a passion for Fleetwood Mac and giving voices to the silenced through The Redemption Project. If you would like to learn more about Sara’s project, you can contact her and Dr. Mike Lyons here.