A Helping Hand

Students and Prisons

Daniel J. Kiley '85 recalls a strange conversation he had last semester in which a woman vociferously defended her former practice of selling drugs to children.

The woman said she would kill anyone who tried to sell drugs to her own children, but argued that if she hadn't, someone else would have.

The woman is an inmate at Framingham Woman's Penitentiary. Kiley is one of 40 Harvard students who regularly make trips to counsel inmates there.

On his next visit to the prison, Kiley found out from her fellow inmates that the woman had finally agreed she was wrong.

Since the 1950's, the prisons committee of Phillips Brooks House (PBH) has been sending student volunteers to area prisons. The program has since expanded to cover four correctional institutions and one half-way house, which helps former inmates adjust to the outside world.

The program is designed to combat recidivism, or repeat criminals. Almost three quarters of those who ever go to jail in the United States end up behind bars more than once in their lives. The phenomenon is most clearly associated with a person's inability to adjust to the outside world. Many recidivists have poor educational backgrounds and are often unable to find a job.

Demed their own place in society, they are more readily inclined to become involved in crime. Because convicted criminals have made that decision once before, crime becomes easier to commit, explains Leslie H. Moeller '84-85.

The prisons committee seeks to provide those inmates who would like to break out of a life patterned by crime with an opportunity to improve their education and to feel that they too have a place in the outside world.

Because PBH makes a policy of conducting its correctional programs separately, the 40 students on the prisons committee do not rotaic among the four prisons. Groups of volunteers generally stay with one prison for an entire semester. At the Framingham Women's Prison, the volunteers go out just to talk with the inmates or organize activities for them. They have debated gun control, simulated the popular game, Family Feud, and made Valentine's Day cards.

"Some good does come out of the discussions for them; occasionally we have results that are as directly encouraging as this one," says Kiley. "One of the main things for us is learning about the attitudes of the inmates. They are disproportionately minorities and very disproportionately poor. They have a tremendous suspicion of the government and of society as a whole, which is something entirely unfamiliar to us. For the inmates it's really, a question of we versus they." Kiley explains.

The programs at the other correctional facilities place greater emphasis on actual tutoring. "The major goal is education," says Moeller, who founded and directed the program at Massachusetts Correction Institution (MCI) at Concord.

Nevertheless, she adds, giving the inmates a greater feeling of worth remains the ultimate end of the program. "It's really a form of consciousness raising. Just meeting with people from the outside world and talking about their problems makes them feel more like real people."

PBH was the first collegiate organization to send volunteers to tutor at mental institutions in the 1950's. The program was so successful that PBH began to look for ways of expanding it, eventually settling on correctional facilities, where volunteers could do similar work.

Last year, Moeller decided to expand the program to include the MCI Concord.

"He called at the right time. We have a full educational facility here, but the inmates who work in our furniture shop couldn't attend classes during the day anymore. They needed to meet deadline, but we had no evening programs. The volunteers from PBH fit the bill nicely," says Daniel J. Farnoff, principal of the institution's school.

MCI Concord is a medium security prison that serves as a classification center for newly convicted prisoners. Most of the inmates are merely in transit to one institution or another, but there is a permanent population of about 50 to 60, many of whom work in the furniture shop.

"They're a cooperative group, they want to stay, and they've been picked to stay here. There aren't any gangs in this institution, primarily because they don't have a chance to solidify," says Farnkoff. "Consequently, we're relatively free of disciplinary problems. Though many of the inmates here have committee serious, even violent, crimes, they don't constitute a security risk. Those who would go directly to Walpole [the area's only maximum security prison]."

The inmates who become involved in the tutoring program are usually the ones who have resolved to change their lives," says Moeller, adding. "They're some of the better prisoners." "My tutee has been in prison a lot of times, but this time he really doesn't want to come back," adds Andrea Fastenberg '86.

"I know I've screwed up: I want to do my time and not come back here," says one of the inmates. Their own committment to improving themselves is essential. "You're not going to reform someone if he hasn't made the decision," says Moeller.

It is important that the tutoring develop some measure of consistency, participants say. "We've assigned inmates to volunteers on a one to one basis to achieve some regularity. Otherwise its almost a wasted effort," explains Farnkoff.

Farnkoff has played a vital part in organizing the program, colleagues say. "He has take the bureaucratic side of things upon himself. He deals with the prison administration on our behalf and makes sure that we have inmates to tutor. He gives us a lot of support," says Moeller.

Farnkoff went around to the prisoners who worked in the furniture shop, asking them if they would be interested in participating. "I asked them what it was they wanted to learn, and soon the word got around. Now we have a waiting list," says Farnkoff.

"It's very difficult to get a job, especially when you don't have a high school diploma. We help them prepare for the GED, the high school equivalency test," says Moeller. "Education is very important, and it gives the inmates a sense of respect to be able to read and multiply. It's refreshing to see them working hard--it's very unusual for someone to make that effort that late in life. One of our tutees wants to go to college. He must work 10 to 15 hours a week preparing for the sessions."

Many inmates say they find the tutoring quite helpful. "It's real good program I've already received my GED, and I'm just brushing up a little bit before I get on into college," says one.

One of the inmates at Concord graduated from Harvard in 1939. Though he was once an engineer, he is currently helping one of the other inmates write his autobiography. "I'm really enjoying the program. Like the autobiography, it gives me something to do. I'm surprised there aren't more people here," he says.

Volunteers also call the experience rewarding. "More people should be exposed to this. It's the best learning experience that I've had here at Harvard," says Fastenberg. "It's important to have some practical sense of what social reform is all about. I sometimes feel a bit selfish sitting around here for four years in an Ivory Tower this makes me feel a little better."