When I searched for volunteer opportunities on VolunteerMatch last September I was thinking that perhaps I would dedicate my efforts towards homeless animals or small children. Incarcerated people were just about the last population on my mind. After all, incarcerated people typically aren’t very cute or cuddly nor are they typically framed as a population in need of or deserving of volunteer services. On the contrary, they’re framed as horrible people who deserve nothing but misery and suffering.
Yet College Guild’s mission spoke to me. I liked their motto: Respect reduces recidivism. Some say respect must be earned and some would argue that incarcerated persons have lost the right to be treated with respect. Others feel that all people deserve respect just by virtue of being human and that the right to be treated with respect is inalienable. I belong to the latter camp.
There may have been a time when I believed the prevailing narrative that incarcerated people are all horrible but education I’ve since received both in and out of school has taught me otherwise. When I took a college course on wrongful convictions I was horrified to learn how common wrongful convictions are and how much corruption there is in the criminal justice system. I was also horrified by the lack of reparations and support services available to convicts once they’re discharged. It’s unfortunate that the criminal justice system is focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation.
To change this, we will need massive society overhauls and it will need to be a group effort, but I know that societal change starts with the individual. Nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something. College Guild seemed like a way for me to make a difference in a broken system. I knew that even if I couldn’t make much of a difference in the prison world, I could potentially make a world of difference to an individual incarcerated person. I was touched by the testaments from incarcerated persons on the College Guild website about how College Guild changed their lives by treating them as human beings; how it expanded their horizons and gave them new hope.
While I did not believe that all incarcerated people were horrible, undeserving people when I started volunteering with College Guild, I was not free from stereotypical beliefs about the incarcerated. I assumed the units I received from incarcerated persons would be simplistic and poorly written but from the beginning my assumptions were proven wrong. I was blown away by how articulate and insightful my first College Guild student was and every student unit since has been articulate and insightful in its own way. I’ve enjoyed reading and responding to every one of them. The incarcerated persons’ writings have moved me, they’ve made me laugh and they’ve allowed me to see things in a new light and from different perspectives which I wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
These incarcerated students are witty, insightful and intelligent. They have an amazing capacity for empathy and reflection. Some of them have gone beyond just answering the unit questions and have included notes to me, the College Guild reader, to tell me how much they enjoyed the lessons or to thank me for what I do. Their pain and suffering shines through in their writing but so does their hope and passion. I feel privileged to have a window in to their world and to be able to exchange ideas with them.
If we’re going to extend compassion to incarcerated people and provide them with educational opportunities, it’s tempting to be selective about the type of incarcerated person we’re willing to do this for. It’s tempting to say it’s worthwhile to do this for non-violent drug offenders but surely, it’s a waste of time, effort and resources for a murderer on death row. Yet College Guild draws no such lines. It’s open to all incarcerated persons, regardless of crime or sentencing status.
College Guild gives its readers no information about a student aside from their first name, so I have no idea what crimes any of “my” incarcerated people may have committed. Perhaps they did something I would find reprehensible and perhaps if I knew about their crime or met them in real life, I would find it hard to treat them with respect but when I interact with them online through College Guild, it’s not hard. This unique opportunity College Guild provides to interact safely and anonymously with incarcerated persons is a true gift, not just to the incarcerated but to me as well.
One of the most moving books I ever read was Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. It was an account of Stevenson’s work as a lawyer for incarcerated people on death row. He espoused the philosophy that “Everyone is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done” and he said that he could not pretend his struggle to help incarcerated persons was disconnected from his own personal struggle.
I cannot pretend either. I don’t know what it’s like to be in an actual prison, but I know what it’s like to be imprisoned by mental illness, both literally and figuratively. I know what it’s like to feel judged based on stereotypes and past mistakes. I know what it’s like to feel hopeless.
It may seem odd to draw inspiration from incarcerated persons who you’ve never met and don’t know much about, but the truth is I do. I would even go so far as to say that in some ways the incarcerated people I work with through College Guild are my heroes.
I remember well the utter sense of despair and isolation I felt when I was trapped within the walls of a mental hospital for a few weeks. I remember how the experience shattered my sense of self-worth and I remember the sense of futility that plagued me for years afterward. I had no motivation to better myself through education or any other means. Yet here these incarcerated persons are trapped for years behind bars, constantly getting the message that they’re worthless and their futures are hopeless but still they seek to better themselves through the educational opportunities provided by College Guild.
While I’ve long since been freed from the walls of the mental hospital, in some ways I’m still held incarcerated by my mental illness. There are days when I’m almost incapacitated by feelings of depression and hopelessness. When I first started volunteering with College Guild, I was unemployed, and I spent much of my time sitting at home alone feeling miserable. College Guild helped give me a sense of purpose.
I hope to continue with College Guild for a long time to come and to help spread the word about it, so that more incarcerated people and readers alike can reap the benefits