The following was published in UChicago News on November 28, 2023.
By Andy Brown
How do we create a society that no longer sees prisons as a solution?
This is a question that has guided Tommy Hagan, AB’21, in both his personal life and in his academic pursuits at the University of Chicago, from which he graduated with a dual degree in Fundamentals: Issues and Texts and philosophy.
For years, Hagan has worked to abolish prison and foster enduring peace. As a result of his efforts, Hagan, from Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J., has earned a prestigious George J. Mitchell Scholarship. On Nov. 18, he was one of 12 scholars selected from among nearly 350 applicants for the highly competitive program, which recognizes and fosters intellectual achievement, leadership, and a commitment to community and public service.
Hagan, the second UChicago student or alum to be named a Mitchell Scholar since the award’s inception in 1998, will pursue an MSc in peace and conflict studies at Ulster University beginning in the fall of 2024.
Family-inspired fight for prison reform
Growing up with Irish grandparents, Hagan would often hear stories of his cousins who had been involved in the Troubles, a decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland between Irish nationalists and Northern Irish citizens loyal to the United Kingdom. Some were held in Long Kesh, a prison in Northern Ireland that gained notoriety for its harsh treatment of paramilitary prisoners.
These stories rooted him in the struggle for the abolition of state violence, specifically as it pertains to prisons.
“In order to realize peace and safety anywhere, we need to abolish institutions of state violence and direct resources towards life-affirming institutions that address the underlying causes of harmful behavior,” he said.
In his pursuit of this goal, Hagan has provided education and support behind prison walls for the past decade, building connections and community with incarcerated people.
Through writing workshops, reading groups and personal visits, he has engaged in countless discussions that have shaped his political consciousness and fueled his resolve to dismantle the prison system.
In 2021, Hagan, alongside activists and co-founders Denzel Burke and Destine Phillips, spearheaded the REAL Youth Initiative. This groundbreaking organization focuses on fostering critical consciousness and community among both currently and formerly incarcerated young people.
The initiative advocates for the abolition of prisons and aims to address the root causes of harmful behavior. Through weekly workshops at juvenile prisons and comprehensive community re-entry programs, REAL Youth provides a lifeline for young people, offering a tangible alternative to the pattern of re-incarceration.
Hagan plans to leverage his connections as a Mitchell Scholar to expand the REAL Youth Initiative internationally. His vision includes creating a network of organizations in Belfast, Northern Ireland and American cities dedicated to the abolition of state violence.
“This network would not only create a space for dialogue between shared struggles but would also offer tangible fellowship opportunities for directly impacted young people to travel to Belfast and America and develop relationships that can sustain their long-term involvement in abolitionist organizing,” he said.
As Hagan reflected on the honor of receiving this highly selective award, he thanked his family and mentors who have supported him, including his Granny, who passed away in August.
“We talked of Ireland frequently, doing a weekly reading group on Irish history, politics and culture until her passing,” he said. “This opportunity would never have been possible without our many long conversations and the invaluable lessons she imparted to me.”
Plaudits from the College
Nichole Fazio, associate dean of undergraduate research and scholars programs, and executive director of the College Center for Research and Fellowships, said of Hagan:
“Tommy demonstrates a force of character and courage of conviction that directly aligns with the core mission of the George J. Mitchell Scholarship: to recognize and support students who are committed to community and public service, who will become future American leaders, and whose driving motivation is fundamentally centered on the betterment of others. Tommy has an extraordinary record of service, has already demonstrated the capacity to lead, and possesses an intellectual sophistication that far exceeds the superficial markers of merit. He has worked incredibly hard, not just on his application but on becoming the kind of individual who should give all of us hope for the future.”
“Tommy’s selection for the Mitchell Scholarship underscores his dedication to making a positive difference in the world,” said Melina Hale, dean of the College. “This achievement is also a testament to his intellectual curiosity and leadership qualities. We have always believed in the transformative power of a UChicago education, and Tommy's journey exemplifies the profound impact our alumni can make.”
Hagan received application support from the CCRF, which facilitates annual nomination processes and guides candidates through rigorous applications for nationally competitive fellowships. The CCRF also acknowledges the tremendous service provided annually by its faculty nomination committee for the Marshall, Rhodes and Mitchell scholarships.
This story was adapted from the UChicago College website.