When Worlds Collide: Tutoring in Prisons

PBH Volunteers at Deer Island

Mac S. Little stares across the table at his new tutor. "Why am I here?" he says nonchalantly. "Murder."

The tutor, Martha C. Abbruzzese '91, who had left Cambridge only half an hour earlier, returns his gaze in shock. There are no bars, no armed guards--at least not here in the Program Area at Deer Island prison. The inmate's grim face and worn clothing belie the classroom-like atmosphere. For a minute, murder almost seems possible.

Then Little breaks into a grin. "Just kidding," he says.

To most Americans, prisons exist to hide and contain crime and as such, they are easily and best forgotten. But for a small number of volunteers--including the dozen or so Harvard students who tutor every Monday night in the Suffolk Country House of Correction at Deer Island--prisons are an extension of the lecture hall. Here, tutor and tutee meet in an atmosphere of mutual curiosity to explore and learn from each other. Establishment confronts outlaw, and sometimes both profit.

The Phillip Brooks House (PBH) Prison Committee's purpose is to teach poorly educated Massachusetts prisoners enough to pass a high school equivalency exam. Under PBH's auspices, Harvard students travel to several different prisons, including Deer Island in Winthrop. Program organ izers say they hope if inmates earn General Educational Development (GED) certificates, they will be able to get decent jobs after their release.

"The goal is education, so they won't fall into crime again," says Kristin L. Walter '89, co-chairman of the committee.

That goal is not always easy to achieve. Many of the inmates in the medium-to-minimum security prison have had little formal education, and their brief classroom experiences have often left little mark. When asked by tutors what they want to work on, prisoners respond with words like "writing" and "fractions." Many prisoners do not even know what subjects like "fractions" are, because their school experiences included very little real learning.

"In the inner city, teachers sometimes forget what a real classroom is like. Learning falls to the back of the scene. Talking, throwing--education becomes a big food fight," says tutor Peter J. Freed '90, who attended an urban public high school in New Haven, Conn., and says he hopes to spend the summer tutoring in the Connecticut prison system. "For a lot of these people, they've never had a teacher interested in them as an individual rather than as someone who should shut up."

The prisoners' weak educational backgrounds make it more difficult for the Harvard tutoring program to fulfill its goals. Many inmates have trouble grasping new concepts, tutors say. Tutors say they frequently must set aside GED preperation texts after discovering that a prisoner cannot read or write. "This may be the first time many [inmates] have been exposed to what learning can do," Freed says.

Prison officials set a one-hour time limit on tutoring sessions, a restriction that compounds the tasks faced by the Harvard program. PBH organizers complain of a continual struggle with the prison administration for time and support--a struggle they say they usually lose. In recent weeks, for instance, the Deer Island administration has required all tutors to pass an exhaustive background check, which slows down the process of bringing teachers to the prison. "I think they just don't want 20 people coming here. [Bureaucratic red tape] is the greatest ammunition they can throw at you," says Deer Island case manager Dan O'Connell, a social worker employed by the prison.

In addition, many inmates attend sessions only once or twice. Just when the tutor and tutee begin to build an invaluable rapport, the inmate effectively vanishes without cementing any new skills, tutors say. This irregularity stems in part from the prison administration's system of choosing which inmates may participate in the tutoring program, prisoners say. According to some prisoners, only those inmates who are on good terms with the administration are permitted to attend. Faced with such obstacles, O'Connell says, "We're not going to produce any Ph.Ds."

Nevertheless, many prisoners eventually earn their GEDs. Their success can be partially credited to the PBH program, which provides the only individual instruction many of the participants ever receive.

Inmates say they like the program, claiming it will help them after their release. "Half the people here don't know how to read and write," says William P. Connerty, who is serving out his eighth prison sentence. "If I was going to get a job, this would be a 100 percent benefit. You can work at McDonalds without an education or at Marriott with one."

Each new inmate GED represents a victory for prison case managers. But the program can help prisoners who attend tutoring sessions only once or twice, organizers say. At the very least, they say, the program gives prisoners a chance to exercise their minds. "If they learn fractions, they're going to take that out on the streets," O'Connell says. "The Program Area gets quiet when [the tutors] come, and that silence says something educational is going on."

Inmates focus on the more practical benefits of tutoring. "This school makes people more aware of what's going on around them," Connerty says. "So they can read their rights."