Josh Pritchett’s Improbable Journey from a Prison Cell to UVA

Josh Pritchett’s Improbable Journey from a Prison Cell to UVA

Josh Pritchett cannot tell you how many times he has been in jail.

“I started getting locked up – I was 14, maybe,” he said. “It was little things at first. The first time I was locked up, it was for a fight.”

Things escalated from there. Pritchett started “catching drug charges.” Then he and his friends began stealing cars. “That night was the night that I learned to drive a car, through the process of stealing one,” he said.

When pressed to offer a ballpark figure for the number of times he has been incarcerated, Pritchett said, “I would say 10 to 15 times.”

Today, he is a fourth-year student in the University of Virginia’s prestigious McIntire School of Commerce, having transferred from community college, and on track to walk the Lawn in May during UVA’s 190th Final Exercises.

Pritchett’s journey is a remarkable story of transformation from a troubled, violent youth to an accomplished scholar – one that began, in part, with the simple exchange of letters with a fellow inmate named Santana.

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Books Behind Bars

Pritchett was released from prison two weeks before his 20th birthday and spent the next several years working at an Ace hardware store, going to church and attending John Tyler Community College, where he became an excellent student.

When he transferred to UVA last year at the age of 25, he knew there was one course he was definitely going to take: Russian literary scholar Andrew Kaufman’s celebrated “Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature and Leadership.” The course introduces the works of Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy to a blended roster of UVA students and residents at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Chesterfield County, where Pritchett grew up.

As he was preparing to apply to UVA, Pritchett’s mind went back to those letters he had exchanged with Santana, who went by his last name, as many inmates do. At that time, Pritchett was incarcerated at Riverside Regional Jail, an adult institution. He’d recently decided to join a therapeutic community program to straighten out his life before his release. The people leading the discussions were ex-cons who’d gone on to do good things with their lives.

“It wasn’t some guy in khakis and a white shirt telling me what to do,” Pritchett said. “Now, all of a sudden, it was people who looked like me, who sounded like me, who had lived like me, but they had found something that I hadn’t found and they shared that with me.”

It was during this time that Pritchett was exchanging those letters with Santana, his former cellmate at Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center. “He started telling me about this program he had just started with these kids from this UVA class,” Pritchett said.

Josh Pritchett arrives at Bon Air – not as an inmate, but as a UVA student.

In the letters, he noticed a change in the tone of the writing of his friend, who was doing time for stabbing a man who’d beaten Santana’s girlfriend, resulting in the miscarriage of her baby. “He would just ask questions every once in a while that were kind of a deeper question,” Pritchett said. Santana never did mention the name of the UVA course he was taking, and the letters faded from Pritchett’s memory until, nearly seven years later, it was time to apply to UVA.

“It wasn’t until I’d made the decision to apply to UVA that I realized, ‘Oh yeah, my friend took this class with this professor,’ and I’m worried about getting in and if there is anybody who would help me, it’s probably this professor,” Pritchett said, referring to Kaufman.

Pritchett reasoned that Kaufman would have some insight, “and he knows people like me, so he understands where I’m coming from.”

So, Pritchett reached out to Kaufman. “After we met, I was like, ‘Dude, if I get into UVA, I’m taking this class.”

Kaufman helped Pritchett hone his personal admissions essay for his McIntire application, encouraging him to be real and honest about his past. Pritchett followed that advice. This is an excerpt from his essay.

“I was raised in a challenging environment full of abuse and negative behaviors. During my teenage years I was in and out of courtrooms and juvenile facilities, due to both home life concerns from Social Services and my foolishness as a teenager. At seventeen years old my actions led me to be incarcerated for two and a half years.

“Today I have a life that I would have never thought possible before. I once believed I would be dead or incarcerated for life by age twenty-five. Today, I am twenty-five and using my life to make a difference. With an education at McIntire I hope to make an even greater one.”

In May 2017, Pritchett received word that he had been admitted to McIntire. It was then that he began the process of applying to “Books Behind Bars.”

Kaufman said he was intrigued at the prospect of having a former juvenile facility resident in his class, because it would lend a new dimension. “It was important to me that he wanted to take the class itself, and not just have an opportunity to go to the facility,” he said. “After talking to him, reading his analysis of Fyodor Tyutchev’s poem, ‘Silentium,’ over email, and later, his course application, I was comfortable.”

Kaufman was right. Pritchett did bring a new dimension to the class.

‘You Could Sense a Shift in the Atmosphere’

“I never really thought of Josh as a ‘former resident,’” Kaufman said. “He was always a UVA student to me, and I wanted to make sure the other students viewed him the same way.

“Of course, I wanted to take full advantage of his unique knowledge about the world we were going into, but I was always careful not to hold him up or encourage others to hold him up as the UVA class ‘expert’ on incarceration,” Kaufman said.

It was a few weeks into the class before Pritchett shared his past with his UVA classmates. “That was scary,” he said. “I’m not one to keep my story hidden. I have no problem with being transparent.”

Professor Andrew Kaufman leads a session of Books Behind Bars last spring at Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Chesterfield County.

At the same time, Pritchett knew his path to UVA was very different from those of his peers. “So, because of that, I was a little timid about what kind of response am I going to actually receive,” he said.

Ultimately, he thought it would be OK. “You know, these are open-minded, good people. They self-selected to be in this class with these kinds of situations,” he said.

Nonetheless, Pritchett shook as he shared his story.

“It was so quiet at first and then I think people knew that they were supposed to respond,” he laughed. “So, people started asking questions about what was it like being locked up.”

Pritchett was relieved and happy. “I enjoyed that, because if you ask questions, like obviously it shows that you’re interested. It’s no different than me asking questions about you.”

At the same time, he appreciated it when Kaufman redirected the conversation. “He said, ‘I don’t want this to turn into an interview session because at the end of the day, Josh is a student just like anyone else here.’”

One day last spring, Kaufman’s class discussed “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” with residents at Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center.

Kaufman said, “You could sense a shift in the atmosphere. There was much more vulnerability among the other students. Josh gave them the courage to share their own stories of difficult upbringings, struggles with depression, of having a family member incarcerated.

“As a teacher, I think this is a wonderful example of the power of relationships in a classroom. When barriers break down among students, learning can be so much deeper. We sometimes forget this as teachers, focusing on the content rather than people.”      

Pritchett’s reveal at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center was much different. He said he shared his story the very first day his class visited the residents.

“There was no hesitation or fear,” he said. “I wasn’t afraid they would reject me or be surprised in a bad way. And for me, it was a moment of rejoicing. These are the people I grew up with. Like, these are my people.”

He went on, “Kids need to see somebody like them who has overcome their struggles and can provide hope and a pathway to progress and a better future.”

Kaufman remembers the moment this way. “I was watching the reactions and noticed that never before had the residents paid more rapt attention than they did in that moment,” he said. “I think many of them were taken aback, unable to believe that someone who’d been in their shoes could have come so far.”

UVA students Josh Pritchett and Amelia Wald share a light moment with Bon Air residents Lance Elliott, left, and Joseph Mitchell.

When the UVA students visited Bon Air, they were broken into groups with the residents. Pritchett was determined to use his background to facilitate better discussions about Russian literature for his group. Admittedly, he got a bit carried away in that first session with the residents, switching to prison lingo. “We called bars of soap ‘bricks,’ and the residents are like, ‘What you know about bricks?’ And I’m like, ‘Man, what you know about bricks?’”

All of this threw his UVA partner, Amelia Wald, for a loop, and Pritchett later apologized because he knew the incident had made it difficult for Wald to engage.

Santana Makes A Repeat Appearance

Pritchett’s friend Santana made another unexpected appearance in Pritchett’s life at the end of “Books Behand Bars” last spring. To help his students prepare for their final paper, Kaufman shared examples from previous students. The paper he gave to Pritchett featured a familiar character. Two, actually.

“The first example I was reading was from the first year of the class,” he said. “The girl who wrote it, she was partners with Santana,” he added incredulously.

And there was another resident she wrote about, named “Smoke.”

“And I knew this guy,” Pritchett said. “He was on our unit. These are the people I was locked up with!

Josh Pritchett listens as Bon Air resident Joseph Mitchell makes a point.

“And she is quoting them and talking about things they were saying, and I’m like sitting there reading, like ‘Yes, that is exactly what he would say.’ You know, it was this incredibly surreal thing and it really threw a wrench in my ability to think clearly and write for that paper because it was like just this is kind of like out-of-body experience.”

Pritchett did write that paper. Then he spent the summer in an internship at an investment firm in New York City. “It was kind of similar to a hedge fund, and I was a research analyst,” he said.

While grateful for the experience, it forced him to delay a passion project. Pritchett wants to create a ministry and had been planning to work on it last summer. “It doesn’t mean I have to wait. I still want to do things with kids who are locked up,” he said.

The goal is to teach inmates in-demand skills in computer programming, data science and finance. “I was starting to create a structure of a curriculum and apply this in an institutional setting,” Pritchett said, adding that Kaufman has been a great resource for this project, which he simply calls “The Bon Air Project.”

Once he graduates, Pritchett is interested in going into something related to data science or business analytics. “I’m looking at possibly going to work at a start-up or some other tech firm,” where he can hone the skills he has learned at McIntire.

‘Seats at the Table’

Local, award-winning filmmaker Chris Farina has made a film about the Books Behind Bars program. “Seats at the Table” premieres Sunday at 2 p.m. in Newcomb Hall Theater as part of the Virginia Film Festival.

Director Chris Farina (in the back, in a blue shirt) spent two years making “Seats at the Table.” He filmed at both Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center and here, in Andrew Kaufman’s classroom in Nau Hall.

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Jane Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications