It's an Education for Everyone Concerned

First in a two-part series.

Most Thursday nights, Jennifer Bryant '86 goes to prison.

Bryant, a senior, is the leader of a Phillips Brooks House group that goes to the Deer Island minimum-security facility to tutor inmates hoping to pass the Graduate Equivalency Degree (GED). The GED, which covers math, English, science and social studies, offers the equivalent of a high school diploma--and, for many prisoners, a one-way ticket out of a life of crime.

"We work as a supplement to the classroom teaching going on in prison, helping them with homework assignments and work books," says Bryant. Prisoners come for help on a voluntary basis, and it is regarded as a privilege to see the tutors, says Bryant, who may work one-on-one or rotate among a few prisoners, depending upon how many people are there.

"There are success stories, but the GED is not the most important thing. We try to encourage their desire to learn," says Bryant. "We, in turn, get to see how the criminal justice system works from the inside."

Bryant is one of about 50 students who give time through PBH to tutor prisoners. Twenty-four go to the Massachusetts Correctional Institute (MCI) at Deer Island, while another 30 go to three other medium- to maximum-security prisons and one halfway house. Most spend about an hour and a half each week tutoring.

MCI-Billerica is one of the prisons where Harvard students help prisoners. Many of the 400 inmates at Billerica are serving sentences of up to three years for crimes like breaking and entering, attempted robbery, vehicular homicide, sex offenses, and child abuse.

William Ryder, director of human services at MCI-Billerica, says the average term for prisoners there is about 10 months, with 40 percent of the prisoners getting out in less than 90 days. Issued navy work pants and a light-blue mechanic's shirt, prisoners at Billerica spend 17 to 21 hours a day confined to a space large enough only for a bunk bed, toilet and sink.

The tutors start out working through homework problems with the prisoner, but it's not unusual for the subject to stray from the Pythagorean theorem to something else, says Tina Vanasse '88, leader of the Billerica tutoring group. "Some prisoners are nervous at first. They don't swear and they're real careful about what they say," says Vanasse, a volunteer at Billerica since her freshman year.

Vanasse sees the ultimate goal of the tutoring as rehabilitation: "We put people in prison, but then what? We have to give them a chance. Our being there gives them encouragement. They think, 'Wow, they're college students giving us some of their time.' It makes a difference to them."

At Billerica, where the average age of the prisoners is 23, a volunteer tutor will not usually work one-on-one with the same prisoner week after week, Vanasse says. "They switch us around. The focus is on getting contact form the outside, not forming personal relationships," Vanasse says.

Some of the prisoners use the time with tutors as a distraction, says Jimmy, a sandy-haired prisoner who got his GED last year. "A lot of guys really work at getting the GED, but a lot just want to get out of the cell," Jimmy says.

Prisoners only have a short period of time out of their cell, and some regard the two-and-a-half hour classes as an escape form the monotony of the cell or weightlifting or basketball.

The classes are geared to ninth grade and up, but for the two-thirds of the prisoners who are operating below the high school level, teachers sometimes use Apple computers to provide reinforcement and practice in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, Ryder says.

"If you give a guy a simple exerqise on paper he'll often say: 'C'mon man, this is for third graders. I'm not doing that.' But if you give him an equivalent exercise on a computer, it somehow legitimizes it. He thinks 'It's a computer; it's hightech,'" Ryder says.

Ryder says he would like to have programs at Billerica for the small number of prisoners who have advanced past the GED, but he says that "most of the people who could fall into that category pass quickly through the system anyway and become classified for education or work release." Ryder says that when given a choice, most prisoners have to work because of money.

Of those who get out, 60 percent end up back in jail, according to Ryder. But a Billerica study this past summer determined that only about 30 percent of those who got their GED's end up back at Billerica.

Once a prisoner qualifies for release, he enrolls in the Boston Resource Employment Program, which is run by the correctional system. According to Deb Hung '88, leader of the Harvard group that goes to the Resource Center, these prisoners are out on prerelease. They hold a job and live in one of many halfway houses in Boston. These prisoners are essentially on the street, "but they have counselors, must check in wherever they go and account for every penny they spend," Hung says.

These ex-prisoners participate in the tutoring for a variety of reasons. "A lot are really curious about the tutoring," says Hung. "They haven't had much schooling, and the GED is a major goal for them."

Some prisoners on pre-release may end up back in prison as one of 700 inmates in MCI-Concord, where Eric Weaver '86 leads a group of six Harvard tutors. Because Concord is a clearinghouse for most prisoners, it is quite large, but Weaver only deals with the 100 prisoners who comprise the "permanent population." The six undergraduates tutor about 12 prisoners in the library. Because the population is so transitory, Weaver has given up working one on one with specific prisoners week after week.

What does it mean to go into a maximum security prison? Says Weaver, "We lock our belongings in a locker and get searched. We take off our shoes, belts, and get frisked."

Students don't know the crimes their tutees have committed. "We don't ask them and it's better not to know what people did. Plenty have killed somebody. Some were drug dealers. But if someone's there to be tutored, they're trying to turn their lives around," Weaver says.

Some prisoners are highly motivated, says Concord volunteer Debra S. Niestat '88, "If they pass the GED it's because they wanted to, not because of us."

Female criminals convicted of prostitution, drug dealing, shoplifting, writing bad checks, or assault go to MCI-Framingham, an overcrowded mixed security facility with 300 inmates, and the only prison in the state that incarcerates women.

"They don't seem like hardened criminals. Many seem really gentle," says Charlotte A. Ellertson '87, leader of the Framingham tutoring program.

Unlike other MCI tutoring programs, Ellertson's group helps in a variety of activities, from arts and crafts to registering the women to vote. The tutors lead painting and drawing sessions and discuss women's issues.

But many women just bide their time in prison, Ellertson says. "It's really difficult. There's no authorized outlet for anger. You can't write a letter to the head guard. Well, you can, but it won't do anything." Moreover, Ellertson says that the problem with the prisons is that they don't rehabilitate people. "They seem to tear up future generations by separating these women from their families. The damage these women do to society as prostitutes and abusing drugs is much less than the damage they do to themselves."

Weaver cautions that prison tutoring is often not as rewarding as other kinds of social service, such as visiting old people. "Many are incorrigibles. Some have seriously messed up their lives. Most of us won't do anything to help them. But tutoring is something that needs to be done," he says.

And don't go in there thinking you can turn someone's life around, because you'll be disappointed, Niestat says. "They should go in there with the intent of giving someone contact from the outside and encouraging their desire to learn," she says.

It works the other way, too, says Ellerston. "Another purpose of tutoring is to give students contact with prisoners. Maybe someday some of them will be in a position to effect change. Students should spread their knowledge about what's going on in there."

Friday: A look at the Law School's Prison Legal Assistance Project, which provides free legal help for about 25 prisoners every month.