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Administration building at FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg (Photo by Selby, GNU Free Documentation License)

It’s not often that residents of the Idaho Maximum Security Institution are invited to speak with classrooms abroad. In fact, I don’t know any other incarcerated individual who has gotten such an opportunity.

But when instructor Henny Hearn, with Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, invited me to present my experiences with Idaho’s criminal justice system to her “Prison and Punishment” class, the Idaho Department of Correction made the arrangements.

This was the second time the IDOC arranged for me to Zoom with an academic audience to share my carceral experiences. The first was in 2021, along with Chris Shanahan, then a resident of the Southern Idaho Correctional Institution. We spoke at the University of Idaho Video Law Symposium on Mass Incarceration. 

My remarks then were about how prison overcrowding in Idaho drove my DOC to outsource my incarceration to a Florida-based, for-profit prison company, the GEO Group. I discussed the system I developed to document and share my experience in two of the GEO Group’s Texas facilities, and the retaliation that I suffered as a result. I also spoke about having to reconcile the hideous feeling of having committed arson against my community.

Our appearances were arranged through the then-legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, Ritchie Eppink. Eppink informed me in a visit leading up to the symposium that Josh Tewalt, the director of IDOC, had personally approved us to speak.

This was a bold and unexpected decision on Tewalt’s part. For one thing, I was housed in AdSeg, or solitary confinement, a restricted housing unit built for long-term isolation where residents don’t typically get to do much. 

On top of that, for much of the year leading up to the symposium, I had been writing letters to lawmakers and media and publishing work on my blog that were deeply critical of the situation in Texas. I also filed multiple complaints to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, an oversight body to which both the IDOC and the GEO Group were accountable. Idaho’s Lewiston Tribune published one of my letters to the editor, and I mailed a copy of every single complaint I submitted to Tewalt. So he likely knew of my activism. 

I had no more than a few days to prepare that 15-minute presentation for a wide audience of students, lawyers, judges and advocates. It was unnerving, to say the least, and I unraveled before them, no doubt influenced by the long-lasting effects of solitary. I grasped for words throughout my speech and struggled to suppress my emotions. My face was bruised for several days after, I think from the blood vessels that burst due to my nerves. 

Yet in January 2023, Hearn reached out over JPay, the prison messaging app used by Idaho prisons. She told me she had attended the symposium and that my talk left a lasting impact — one that she wanted me to share with her class.

Her message arrived during one of the many weeks I found myself questioning my efforts. Over the last five years, I’ve written over 3,500 letters to sheriffs, judges, public defenders, prosecutors, councils, legislators, media, advocates and members of academia on behalf of myself and others to share the experience of incarceration with the free world.

For the next five months, Hearn and I communicated through a JPay-email relay. With my father helping as an intermediary, we exchanged background information and updates. Hearn is from Pocatello, a small city just a few hours east of Boise, which I call home. 

Hearn told me that FAU was one of Germany’s top universities. The university, which was founded in 1743, was also considered one of the most innovative in the world. The course, “Prison and Punishment,” aimed for students to understand the reality of current prison and punishment systems, and what these institutions told them about broader society. The course description emphasized the importance of hearing voices from inside prison walls.

So on June 19, over Zoom, I once again rattled all the loose change in my brain into a basket of professional listeners. During the hour-and-45-minute discussion, I delved deeper into the topics from the symposium and touched on some of the factors that influenced my sentence. I also discussed why it was irresponsible to use long-term isolation, rather than behavioral therapies and betterment programs, to treat people with severe behavioral issues. 

The students asked smart questions, like whether media portrayals of U.S. prison culture were accurate, and whether I had personally experienced the traumatic effects of incarceration I discussed in my speech.

I told them how just that morning, my downstairs neighbor succumbed to injuries he sustained during a brutal act of violence that took place days prior (and just days after he had been granted parole). As a result, my facility was in lockdown, and policy dictated that I be cuffed behind my back before leaving my cell for any reason. As a courtesy, the staff had rotated my cuffs to the front just before I delivered the speech. 

I explained, somewhat vaguely, to the students that the restraints were an unfortunate byproduct of recent events at my facility.

After my speech, the conversation with the corrections officer during my escort home was encouraging. The officer, who also supervised the presentation, suggested I seek out community college classes to help me work through some of my challenges with public speaking.

According to the IDOC, 98% of the state’s incarcerated residents will one day be released. When that day comes for me, I hope for nothing more than the opportunity to follow that officer’s advice. 

I’m grateful to the IDOC staff — especially at my facility — and to Hearn and her class for giving me an opportunity to share my experiences with our criminal justice system. I encourage other corrections departments to follow Idaho’s example and explore ways those behind prison doors can collaborate in open forums with people on the outside. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Patrick Irving, a writer incarcerated in Idaho, is the author of the newsletter First Amend This. He is a contributor to the Prison Journalism Project‌, and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Idaho Law Review, The Harbinger and