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Tutors Tackle Prison Education

By Zachary R. Heineman, Crimson Staff Writer

It could be any van ride with a bunch of Harvard students. Up front a couple guys are debating the merits of different types of urinals, while in the back the question is whether or not to nickname some guy Bruce. Jam’n 94.5 dominates the stereo. But this is not an excursion to a Red Sox game or the Museum of Fine Arts.

The destination of the van is the Connelly Center in Roslindale, Mass., a secure youth treatment facility. Many of the kids there have been convicted of sex offenses, attempted murderer, or armed robbery. The Harvard students, part of the Prison Education program of the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), are going to tutor them.

Patrick C. Toomey ’03 has brought The Cay by Theodore Taylor to give to his tutee. Sara R. Feinberg ’02 holds a Newsweek she plans to read and discuss with hers.

As the van turns into the Connelly Center lot, the mood begins to change. By the time they enter the building—a utilitarian brick box—all the tutors have assumed a business-like attitude.

Jennifer Mossner, a Michigan native who runs the educational programs of Connelly, greets everyone at the door. She has had a long day—there was a fight and one of the kids was taken to the hospital. Every day is long, Mossner says, but she still manages to stay upbeat.

“My kids are at their best at this time,” she says, almost like a proud parent. As far as parents go, the kids at Connelly have generally not had the best luck. Many were sexually abused when they were younger, Mossner says, and most never received much guidance, academically or otherwise.

“Some of the kids have never been read to one on one,” Mossner points out.

For the kids at Connelly, most of whom are high school age but read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level, working one on one with the Harvard students allows for an intellectual engagement that would never be possible in a group classroom environment.

“There’s no fronting or trying to impress their peers,” Mossner says.

The Connelly kids are on their best behavior during tutoring, because for them it is a privilege to get off “the floor”—the series of rooms where they spend much of their time.

On this day, some of the kids who were involved in the fight aren’t allowed to come down. At tutoring all the kids have come from the gym and are freshly showered. They are all calm, and it is obvious that none of the tutors feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Staff members are still present in each classroom in case a problem ever arises.

There are rules, though. Tutors are told they should try to avoid talking about their kids’ criminal histories and personal experiences. There is also a “no touch” policy. While handshakes are discouraged, hugs are absolutely prohibited. But despite the restrictions on interactions, the Harvard students inevitably gain a sense of the kids they tutor—close in age but in a far different position.

“He told me he has a baby girl. He showed me a poem he’d written for her,” says Kristin M. Garcia ’05, describing her tutee.

For the tutors, seeing the kids in that manner makes it difficult for them to envision them as criminals.

“It doesn’t seem like these are kids who committed the crimes I know they committed,” says Irene B. Janis ’03, who leads the Connelly program.

Other tutors say they are surprised by the way they are able to interact with their kids.

“He seems like a normal guy,” says Michael Grunfeld `04.

The tutors say they believe that these kids are not inherently bad, but are victims of their situations.

“I see in those kids what I could be in other circumstances,” says Gregory M. Ingolia ’03. “They’re all good kids; they just made one or two mistakes.”

Janis agrees.

“In my life those choices were never presented,” she says.

Mossner says that keeping the kids from making the same mistakes when they are back in society presents the largest challenge. Education, she says, plays an important role in giving the Connelly kids other options. A number of her students have gone onto college, including one who is currently on scholarship at Bowdoin.

“Every minute of every day someone is watching them. To go from that back into the community can be a mind-blowing experience,” Mossner says.

Those responsible for watching the kids at all hours say they really get to know them well.

“It’s a good job because I like helping them, but it’s stressful,” one of the residential staffers says. “But for the ones you can help, it’s worth it.”

Garcia shares this attitude.

“I’m not saying we’re going to change the world,” she says. “But we can definitely help an individual.”

Although the Connelly Center is in Roslindale, Janis stresses that Prison Education does not necessarily benefit a group of kids that are geographically identifiable.

“We don’t have a specific community,” she says. “But these kids are coming out of the underserved communities that other programs work with.”

PBHA has run prison education programs for many years, but the Connelly Center program is fairly new, having begun less than three years ago.

For Janis, the most important administrative aspect of the program is trying to make sure the tutors show up consistently.

“These kids have been let down so many times,” she says.

Tutors participate in the program for a variety of reasons. Some do it as part of a larger vision, as part of a desire for prison reform. Others simply enjoy teaching and see prison education as a perfect opportunity.

“My interest is giving to others as others have given to me,” Ingolia says.

For many tutors, the program becomes an integral part of their Harvard experience.

“I couldn’t imagine being here and not tutoring at Connelly Center,” Janis says. “It’s a huge part of my life.”

—Staff writer Zachary R. Heineman can be reached at heineman@fas.harvard.edu.

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