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More Than Just a Class

By Spencer Follett

College Guild Reader and Intern

A few months ago, I had only a faint idea of the work College Guild was doing just a few miles down the road from my life at Bowdoin College. However, signing up to be a reader and interning for College Guild truly opened my eyes to the powerful work that CG was doing by offering educational courses to incarcerated people. These courses, while not taken for any sort of official credit, help the students, and the readers, more than I could’ve imagined and in ways that aren't limited to the pursuit of lifelong learning, although this is a fantastic benefit. 

One of my first assignments as an intern was to read a series of letters and excerpts from CG students in order to get a feel for the courses and students and this opened my eyes to the wide reaching effects of College Guild courses. Admittedly, I didn’t know what to expect. I understood the potential impact of the courses as tools for learning and distraction from the monotony of life in prison, but could not have predicted the breadth of impact these courses had on student lives. 

As students of College Guild Courses, incarcerated people begin to feel heard and accepted as members of a society that had previously shut them out, given up on them, and tossed them to the side.  For many students, College Guild courses are their only consistent human contact outside of prison and, while this contact is limited to discussion of course questions and responses, it is still contact. It is contact that shows a mutual respect, kindness, and commitment to one another. Aside from the joy of learning, the pride in receiving a new certificate of course completion, the disruption from prison’s monotonous routine, College Guild courses teach students how to respect themselves and others, how to think, and how to live a life of meaning, wherever that may happen. 

However, the impact doesn’t stop at the student. Learning from these courses and correspondence is definitely not a one way street. Readers have just as much to learn from their relationship to students as their students do. This idea was somewhat surprising to me until I began to read letters from students and received my first unit to read and respond to. 

I have been very fortunate to live a life that is far removed from prison, although this life of privilege has kept my eyes closed to the inner workings of the prison system in the United States, beyond the informative but limited information covered in my sociology courses and the dramatized images I’ve seen in the media. Letters and course responses reveal a prison system that seems to be almost senseless and callous to the lives of its prisoners in a world that is covered in red tape and littered with rules and regulations with harmful and unnecessary effects on the people incarcerated in it. Correspondence with those on the inside uncovers a world that lacks contact and connection to an outside society that is constantly evolving and changing as the prison system remains practically stagnant. 

As a reader, one can begin to understand the experiences of the students and play a noticeable role in their development and life. Beyond the eye opening learning that readers are able to accomplish, they are able to have a considerable positive impact on students by simply reading and responding to their thoughts. For readers who believe in the necessary prison reforms that seem miles away, College Guild offers a step in the right direction and a path toward a better system for all involved.

A College Guild student encapsulated the effects of courses perfectly in a letter, saying, “It is as if someone is listening to what I have to say and the importance of that act, just listening, cannot be overstated.”

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