February 2022



February 2022
Issue 2
Fall 2021
Issue 1
Winter 2021

Feature Story

FEATURE: Taking Action—Student Tackles Criminal Justice Reform

Arian Agarwala ’22 was sitting at his kitchen table watching documentaries with his mom when he made a decision that would change his life. 

Sure, he was only 12 years old at the time. But he had long felt a desire within himself to help other people. 

“I wish I could say it was me, but he’s always been that way,” says Arian’s mother, Gargi Agarwala—a health and wellness coach. “He’s very sensitive to other people’s feelings and needs. Whenever I’ve given him an opportunity to do something, he actually takes action.” 

He was a young kid with an old soul—deeply passionate about criminal justice reform and those who have been “harshly cast from our society.” They were odd topics for a kid to be interested in, he admits now. 

Complex issues in the United States like the high number of repeat criminal offenders and the continued use of the death penalty—a practice he was shocked to hear was still going on—didn’t go over his head. They tugged on his heart.  

“We sometimes forget that despite the barbaric crimes they committed, prisoners are still human,” said Arian, now a 17-year-old senior at Kent Denver School. “Many of them had really rough childhoods. Many committed crimes at very young ages. I always felt compassion for them on that level.” 

He just needed a way to act—an outlet to let that internal fire grow. It came in 2016.

That year, Arian and his mom watched Serving Life—a documentary executive produced by Forest Whitaker about a hospice program created at the maximum security Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, where inmates serving life sentences care for their dying fellow prisoners. Next, at the recommendation of a friend, they watched Angola for Life —a short documentary produced by The Atlantic detailing prisoner rehabilitation at the same penitentiary.

It was then that Arian came up with an idea. The idea blossomed into an organization, and the organization led to action

“At the prison (in Angola), there was this new warden who came in who wanted to reform the way they approached prison rehabilitation to help address the recidivism rates, which is the rate at which prisoners enter prison, leave and then re-enter later again,” Arian said. “One thing he worked on was teaching these prisoners skills and teaching them how life is outside of prison, which many of them didn’t even understand before they were arrested. 

“Watching that got both my mom and I inspired about an issue that we already cared deeply about. It morphed into what is now Project Freedom Forward.”

Their plan was to create a team that would visit prisons, share words of encouragement for inmates, foster supportive group discussions and provide helpful life tools for those preparing to re-enter society after the completion of their sentence. 

The scope of the project—to visit and lift up prisoners—was defined. The meaning behind Project Freedom Forward—“to find mental freedom behind bars,” as Arian describes it—was profound. The experience was life-changing. 

Through a mutual friend, they connected with the warden at the Federal Correctional Institution in Florence, Colorado, and asked if they could make presentations to inmates. In 2017, with the help of friends Ryan Canaday—a pastor dedicated to providing support for addicts—and Melinda Davidson—a reiki coach—the visits began. Twice a year, the group would meet with incarcerated men in a program called RDAP—those rehabbing from drug and substance abuse. 

Arian, too young to be allowed inside a federal prison, couldn’t attend in person but still played a major role in each presentation. Before each visit, he would write a personalized letter that his mom would then read aloud to the inmates. 

“The letters would introduce the themes of the presentations,” Arian said of the visits, which took place from 2017 through 2019 before ending due to COVID-19. “I was so young that I didn’t have any real wisdom to share with them. So, I would share one personal life story and one story from someone else’s life.” 

Depending on the theme—“resilience,” for example—Gargi would then share meditation techniques for the prisoners to practice, while Ryan and Melinda would incorporate related religious teachings and reiki healing techniques. 

Letters written to Arian from inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Florence, Colorado. 

But it was the letters from Arian that really resonated with the inmates. 

“They were always amazed that a child stranger would care about them,” Gargi said. “They found that very touching.”

So much so that after the first presentation, every single prisoner in attendance wrote a letter back—thanking Arian for showing an interest in their lives, while sharing some of their own personal stories. With each presentation, more letters would come—all of them hand-written to this child stranger who showed he cared. 

“They were always so raw and refreshing. They would tell me about their struggles in life,” said Arian, going on to say he wishes more people in society could show this kind of vulnerability. “They showed me the importance of those traits. In the moment, [being real] might show you’re weaker. But really, it’s showing so much strength.” 

After the pandemic shut things down in early 2020, Arian isn’t sure what’s next for Project Freedom Forward. But as he applies for colleges and looks forward to the next stage in his life, he knows he’ll continue to pursue this passion one way or another. 

“Hopefully when I’m older I can do something similar,” said Arian, mentioning the possibility of working with ex-convicts, as opposed to those still behind bars. “It’s an issue really close to my heart. Every action makes a bigger impact than we think.”

He hopes his actions will impact his classmates and inspire them to pursue change for other important issues in society. Because for Arian, doing so didn’t just change his life. It changed the lives of those around him—including those desperately looking for someone who would care. 


Related Articles