Books have long been treasured gifts to those who find themselves behind bars. Beyond finding faith in those tiny Bibles often left by visiting ministries, many inmates discover the truth that while one's body may be confined by walls, the mind and spirit are forever free. A report from the "Today" show presented some information used in this article.

The pages of books can yield freedom and discovery beyond imagination, and a few years ago, University of Virginia professor Andrew Kaufman was asked to teach a class in Russian literature at a local youth detention facility.

The experience was so impactful and transforming that the expert in the field wanted to bring his University of Virginia college students behind prison walls, combining their learning experiences with those of inmates.

Andrew Kaufman's concept has caught fire within the walls of both institutions and has been translated onto film in a documentary. The professor spoke to Megyn Kelly on May 10 in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, and described how being the captain of a new kind of ship in learning has led to changed horizons forever.

First to sail

“It was the most powerful classroom experience I’ve ever had,” declares Kaufman, speaking of his first workshop taught in a prison nearly nine years ago. The sense of reward sparked the educator to recruit select groups from his college classes to join the classes with youth at the Beaumont Juvenile Detention Facility, about an hour from campus. Arrangements had to be coordinated with the University and the Department of Juvenile Justice before the 2010 launch of his first collaborative class, which was a challenge akin to “building the Mayflower while we're sailing, and not being sure of the destination.” The uncertainty “motivated the heck” out of those original students, and the classes have continued and grown year to year.

Some college students may recall dreading the assignments of reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but once inside prison walls, many of Andrew Kaufman's pupils got an authentic exposure to “Crime And Punishment,” and gained a whole new perspective. Many change their career track to ones of service and social work, according to the professor. The inmates come to see the themes in the writing, centering on love, family, loss, and wrong decisions, as reflections of what they remember from childhood, never thinking that their days would be spent in cells with cement floors, and steel beds for sleeping.

Forgiveness and accountability come up as class discussion topics, and young offenders are quite candid about weighing their personal scales.

According to Kaufman, a major part of why the experience becomes so profound “is because it has an end.” Department of Juvenile Justice rules mandate that students and the inmates not have any contact for five years after the end of the 10-week course, so every moment counts, and every connection becomes a memory. In the documentary, “Seats at the Table,” several scenes depict instances of students’ wishing that their incarcerated counterparts gain grace and “a restart” in life.

One living example

Josh Pritchett reflects that his juvenile detention center was “home.” Even as a young child, he was more than his mother could handle. By the time he was 10, he was sent to his father, who tried to instill the “straight and narrow” way of discipline, but not too much effect in the son who was already struggling in school, and getting into “lots of fights.” Assault and drug charges were not far away, and Pritchett found himself in the justice system.

After a year in a cell, Josh came to crave “the things that were constants,” and prime among those was school and learning. The educational environment for the students who Andrew Kaufman prefers to call “residents” consists of “throwing all the worst kids in the school together” according to Josh Pritchett.

Often, learning in that type of environment is impossible. Josh knew that when he was released, he was going to contact the literature professor who had taught his friend.

“I've learned the value of asking for help,” insists student Pritchett. He felt that if anyone could help him in his quest for learning, it would be Andrew Kaufman. “He was receptive and welcoming,” describes the incoming student of his mentor. The future freshman reminded Kaufman that he was definitely going to include Russian literature among his courses.

Josh Pritchett looked like a mirror image of Andrew Kaufman sitting side-by-side with his mentor.

The undergraduate is now a third-year student at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce. His journey took him to community college and onto the university before taking on his career track.

Pritchett proved his earnestness to the professor long before his first day in class. He chose a poem from the class syllabus and wrote an essay on its personal meanings to him. Moving as that on-the-spot effort was, Andrew Kaufman isn't giving any “easy A’s” to Josh just for being on TV on behalf of Books Behind Bars. The diligent student had to forgo sightseeing in New York City so he could complete his paper for Russian literature.

Even when begged by Megyn Kelly, Kaufman would not grant an extension to Monday. He stated terms were “11:59:59 on Friday.”

Rules have to be rules, in Russian literature, and in life, and this collaborative brand of learning is instilling rules for success, for residents inside detention centers, and those sitting beside them.

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