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."

PBH volunteers say they seek to accomplish something much more basic than pure academic instruction. By socializing with the prioners, tutors say, they hope to help the inmates reintegrate themselves into mainstream society. "We're trying to give them an outlet to the outside world," Walter says. "Exposure to nice, happy people who aren't involved in crime is good for them."

Contact with people like the Harvard tutors is particularly important for many prisoners because they come from a violent background in which "the street" is home and "officers" are the enemy. Coming from the underclass, such individuals often feel they have no real opportunity to attain conventional standards of success or happiness, writes Rhodes scholar Jay MacLeod '83-'84, who was a PBH officer during his undergraduate years. In his book on disadvantaged Boston-area youth, Ain't No Makin' It, MacLeod argues that such hopelessness leaves people disconnected from mainstream society. Inmates agree, saying they feel shunned and forgotten. "No one's trying to do shit for us," says prisoner Ronnie Mack.

For many disadvantaged youth, prison is merely a mandatory rite of passage, Freed says. Connerty--who like most of the Deer Island inmates is serving out a drug-related sentence--says he has been getting arrested since he was nine years old. "By the time I was 18 or 19 and got put away, I was assured of knowing someone in here," he says.

Comfortable with crime, prisoners become viciously suspicious of what they view as an unjust society. "The system is collapsed. There's a breakdown," explains Earl Williams, one of the few prisoners who has attended college.

By interacting with the inmates, PBH volunteers say they are attempting to challenge prisoners' attitudes toward society. "One of our main functions is to give [the prisoners] a sense that we're out there, people who care--that they're not lost in the system," Walter says. "They want to talk to someone. They know we volunteer, and they don't have much to look forward to. This is a chance to see new faces."

Daunting obstacles stand in the way of such reintegration attempts, tutors say. The dual goal of prisons--to protect society and to punish criminals--creates an atmosphere in which inmates have little room to grow or reform, says former PBH Prisons Committee chairman Christine L. Vanasse '88, who wrote her thesis on the topic. "If' we punish them, how at the same time can we make them better people?" she asks.

Inmate complaints about what they call Deer Island's suffocating environment support Vanasse. "You're put under psychological tests 16 hours a day. You're restrained 24 hours a day," Williams says.

Recently, the prisoners successfully sued Suffolk County for failing to maintain the facility's physical plant, which, according to Williams, is "ready for the bulldozer." As a result of the suit, prisoners are locked up for extra hours to avoid health and safety problems, he says.

Locking criminals up may be an effective punishment, but it may push criminals farther away from mainstream society, prisoners say. "It's like putting a man in a microwave," says Mack. "He'll overcook."

Boredom and isolation make prison unbearable, some inmates say. "You ever get irritated during class, stare out the window until the bell rings, get up and leave without caring what you missed? It's like that for whole years in here," Williams says. "There's nothing in this building to make you feel good about yourself, and [the guards] get paid to make it worse. You have to shut yourself off to survive."

The damaging psychological effects of prison are poorly understood by most Americans, inmates say. "You need some judges to come spend some time here," Williams says.

Inmates say the PBH program gives them a chance to vent their frustration. Since they live in an atmosphere that seems to deny them any moral or emotional support, a visit from an interested outsider can offer prisoners tremendous hope. "Harvard tutors are the best thing that ever happened to Deer Island," says inmate Mark. S. Samms. "People are concerned."

Some tutors say they view the program's socializing function as more important than the academic instruction. At times, however, the two become virtually indistinguishable. Freed recalls one Monday when he and an inmate were reviewing the social studies segment of a GED exam. "He couldn't find America on the map. We put aside the book and just talked about the basic principles this country was founded on," Freed recalls. "These were new ideas to him, and finally he said, `Wow, this is really neat.'"

It is the personal contact offered by the program which attracts many of the prisoners in the first place, prisoners and organizers say. "Initially all these guys are coming down to look at some cute girls," O'Connell says. "These guys have on their best clothes, their best linens." Prisoners also come to receive "good time"--credit toward early parole--and to temporarily escape their cells. "The dude is bored," says Mack, explaining why he participates in the tutoring program.

But as time passes, tutors say, prisoners grow interested in the schoolwork. Inmates speak of fellow prisoners who originally came for the "good time" but grew interested in algebra. After a while, some prisoners are more eager to do school work than their tutors. "I feel like I've brought out in some guys an interest that was latent," Freed says.

The inmates are learning and so are the tutors. Most of the Harvard volunteers say they have had very little previous exposure to disadvantaged individuals, let alone to criminals. The prison "was a culture shock," says PBH tutor Amos Meron '89. "You're only gone for two hours, but you get totally out of the Harvard mindset."

Most PBH volunteers say they are suprised by the politeness of the inmates. "These guys are so nice. You'd never think in a million years--I mean, they seem like guys from my neighborhood," says Michael B. Darby '89, who started tutoring this semester.

The prisoners' civil behavior seems all the more surprising when they begin to talk about their backgrounds. Darby recalls one tutee describing a childhood of gang violence. "For him this was a blow-off prison. He said he'd get into a fight just like that, shove a pencil in someone's eye," Darby says.

The prisoners' violent upbringings show up in unexpected ways, tutors say. "I asked this guy for a sample sentence--subject, object, verb--and [he] wrote, 'Johnny stabbed the police officer,'" Darby says.

The dichotomy between prisoners' personalities and their backgrounds merely underscores the fact that these men need not have become criminals, tutors say. "It's good for people to see that prisoners are normal people," Freed says. "Not that I've ever considered them not people, but in the back of my mind there's always been this idea that they're just criminals. They might have turned out like us if their upbringing had been different.

"There's a big problem with calling people criminals," Freed adds. "That puts them outside society. But society must have produced them."

But Walter, the PBH coordinator, warns against too much sympathy for inmates. "You've got to take it all with a grain of salt," she says. "It's easy to fall into the trap of their sad stories, because they're all sad. But you've got to remember that every one of them did something wrong."

Nevertheless, most PBH tutors who have spent time with the inmates say they feel Deer Island creates more problems than it prevents. So they keep returning, Monday night after Monday night, hoping to make prison life a little better.

"Most [prisoners] grew up in terrible environments of drugs and crime. It's our duty to help them," Walter says. "After all, these people are getting out."