Features, Column

Conway Teaches Freshman Writing and Federal Penitents

Besides the first time, I’ve never really gotten nervous about interviewing someone. But I made the mistake of reading Patrick Conway’s short story, “How It’s Done: a Criminal Defense Investigator at Work,” right before we were scheduled to meet. In the story, Conway seamlessly describes a few of his experiences as a former criminal defense investigator in Washington, D.C., a job which he decided upon his senior year at Bates College—craving daily excitement and work for others, not a cramped office and eventual self-help books. The narrative was gripping, but what caught me—in the kind of nervous, impeding way a chain link fence catches your jeans as you’re climbing it in a rush—was the way he described his prowess at getting witnesses to tell him (the guy who was working for the alleged criminal) their story so that they could be pinned up against the wall by a defense attorney in court.


After I read about how Conway, LGSOE ’23, got a witness to talk to him for over two hours after a long day at work, forget his preliminary suspicions that Conway and his team would use his words against him in court, then thank him as he left, I felt like I was about to be on trial, as if the Chocolate Bar would turn into a courtroom any minute and I would be put away for life in a proceeding that wasn’t mine.


“Hey, Joan?” said a man in his 30s through a beard.


The Miranda Rights spun violently through my head, along with my imagination’s deliberate misunderstanding of both the justice system and reality.


“Yeah, have a seat.”


Conway worked as a criminal defense investigator for three years before coming to BC to get his master’s in English. He then worked with the Boston University Prison Education Program, which helps prisoners obtain BU degrees upon finishing academic programs. Now, he is working on a Ph.D., so that instead of just teaching within programs like BU’s, he can set them up and develop them.  


“A lot of times we treat prisons, as, you know, places to discard people and … I think that there should be something other than that. I think there should be ways to improve people and focus on rehabilitation,” Conway said.


While a public defender, while getting his master’s, while teaching to prisoners, while pursuing a Ph.D., Conway is driven by the firm belief that everyone deserves a strong defense whether they can afford it or not. The only semblance of insecurity he has encountered has been for his own safety when walking through seedy neighborhoods in D.C. at night—he was robbed once by three individuals. He has never doubted the equality, and worthiness of every person, criminal or king.


Conway teaches The Great Gatsby to kids with records exemplary enough to get them into Boston College, and Conway taught it to people of various ages (ranging from around 19 to 60) with records tarnished enough to land them in MCI-Norfolk or MCI-Framingham. As can be imagined, Gatsby is seen as a very different character by those two audiences. How the class approached Gatsby—the crook and bootlegger—differed based on the context. Gatsby’s self-tailored heroism and eventual downfall, his appreciation for fine things, his desire for life, his extravagant desperation, and his sad hopefulness mean vastly different things for someone in an orange jumpsuit as opposed to someone wearing Vineyard Vines.


The classroom is a place that prisoners are eager to find themselves, instead of the perpetual boredom that is a premise of imprisonment. In the classroom there is engagement and a certain sense of autonomy. Those enrolled realize the pertinence of education and feel lucky to have been admitted to the BU program. Education is important to Conway, especially within prison, given that education makes someone think of his or her place in the world, and reevaluate his or her surroundings and relation to them. Conway says that not providing ways to keep people’s minds active in prison, and just sending them away to be ignored for a few years, rips out the bolt-locked doors and replaces them with revolving doors.


“Far fewer people end up returning to prison because they’ve had education in prison … There’s a whole range of positive impacts even in the most basic level of just saving taxpayers’ money. People return less to prison, taxpayers don’t have to pay as much,” Conway said.


It’s easy for Conway to empathize with those prisoners he taught, especially because having worked as an investigator, he has seen firsthand the inhumanity in the system and sees education as a way of returning that humanity to those going through a system that strips them of it.


When Conway was growing up in Maine, the dinner bell often meant much more than just food. Conway’s childhood suppers were vibrant, dishes paired with conversation, words from various languages interwoven with English. His mother was an ESL teacher. Over these dinners and through his mother, he was exposed early on to the difficulties others faced, developing a detectable sensitivity to them, a sensitivity that fuels the bounce in his steps every day.


Conway carries this sensitivity on his shoulders to the Lynch School of Education, where he is researching the effectiveness of college-level prison education in hopes of refining his budgeting and financing skills to eventually run a program like the one he is teaching in now.  He works with Andres Castro Samayoa, an assistant professor who specializes in what Conway does—listening to and helping under-resourced and underrepresented communities. Samayoa describes Conway as an emerging researcher who already has a clear vision of the kind of work that he wants to do, and as an emerging researcher who asks people to think about communities that need to be focused on in terms of educational research.


“He has such a powerful voice and a really keen ability of listening to others and amplifying theirs,” Samayoa said.

As girls talked louder about things less interesting and less important at the table next to us, I found myself somewhat swept up in their conversation though, my brain shifting from Conway’s words, even though I struggled against it. Their words were like quicksand: the more I worked not to fall in, the deeper I sunk. His words blended with the “and then she was like’s.”


“I might go out tonight because I don’t have class until 12.”

“Certainly if you don’t have money and are accused of something, you’re put in a bad position. So I think that the system to me is relatively unfair. Not only are you going to be wrapped up in this system that has serious problems, but we’re not going to give you an education while you’re there. That goes against sort of my ideas of how you judge others and a sense of forgiveness.”

“I was thinking about going to the gym tomorrow morning … but I don’t want to have to shower before class.”


“I can understand the perspective of, ‘Oh, is it fair that they earn a college degree,’ but at the same time if you’re questioning fairness, there are a lot of steps along the way that aren’t fair.”

“My high school theater productions were so huge and I was in all of them.”

“To question it all of the sudden at this point seems a little crazy to me.”

Silence was engulfed by giggling and the crucial conversation in front of me drifted to the background. Only after did I realize how fitting it was that I ambled away from the matter at hand. My mind was mimicking American attitudes toward criminals which Conway was explaining. Ignore them, push them to the side, put them away. Hard conversations are way too easy to ignore. Conway thinks that prison shouldn’t be a strictly punitive experience, given both the flaws within the judicial system, and its effect on the criminal and on the victim.


“I’m not sure how much it does make victims really feel better. I mean if something terrible happens to you, I’m not sure how much redemption there is in seeing someone else suffer in the end of it. I suppose there’s some sort of gratification there but I’m not even sure its a good kind of gratification,” Conway said.  

When Conway got up and walked away, I couldn’t help thinking about his short story, and imagined him walking away from his robbers with the same determined passiveness. After a long day working to help the underdog, he looked up the cold, smooth barrel of a gun, his backpack ruffled through in pursuit of wealth he didn’t have—he only had white papers not green ones. The irony of a public defender being robbed on his way home from gathering material to help an alleged criminal is obvious, as is the glaring possibility that had those kids been caught, Conway’s agency might have been defending them.

The three men who had approached him left with pockets as empty as Conway’s, saying “That’s how it’s done. Easy.” The way Conway speaks about educating prisoners is simple and concise. For others who may hear about his work, including myself, a million questions swirl around in the mind—questions about the ethical conundrums surrounding the situation, the politics, the risk, the stories, the benefit—but it is for Conway, as it was for the guys who robbed him: “That’s how it’s done. Easy.”

Featured Image by Jake Evans / Heights Staff

January 31, 2018