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My road to College Guild

By Mike Caron

CG Board Member

I have spent a lot of time in jails and prisons — possibly more than some inmates. My experience with incarcerated people stretches back to the early 1980s, and I’ve worked in and volunteered at many kinds of correctional facilities. I’ve had different roles over those decades: I began by teaching geography courses for Saint Mary College (now University of Saint Mary) in Leavenworth, Kansas, back when felons were still eligible to receive federal Pell grants if they met financial requirements. That teaching brought me into contact with incarcerated people in state, federal, and military prisons.

Soon, incarcerated veterans in the old Kansas Penitentiary asked me to serve as their group sponsor. Then, Vietnam Veterans of America approached me about traveling to a prison in Moberly, Missouri, where a veteran had just been elected the Midwest regional president of VVA. They were the first incarcerated vet elevated to that level in any service organization, but prison officials would not allow meetings without an outside sponsor present.

My career in corrections included being a cell block guard. I advanced, eventually supervising inmates in maximum, medium, and minimum custody units. Early on, I joined the Special Operations Response Team (SORT); the inmates called us the “Goon Squad” and we were called whenever trouble broke out. Later, as a corrections counselor, I gained intimate knowledge of the personal histories of felons on my caseload. As programs director at Douglas County Correctional Facility, I negotiated a contract between the local school district and a private company that brought opportunities for inmates to earn their high school diploma (not GED) while incarcerated. I partnered with a poet/professor at the University of Kansas to co-teach a popular writing class for a dozen years. I also co-facilitated parenting classes, job-readiness classes, and three levels of cognitive behavior change classes, and monitored many other programs and classes. The library I created was considered better than many inmates had seen, and many had seen more than their share of jail and prison libraries.

Late in my career, I had the opportunity to advocate for and help establish one of the nation’s first reentry programs established at the county jail level. Previously, most reentry was state and federal prison based, but the National Institute of Corrections and the Urban Institute were realizing that it would be wise to focus more on intervention at the local level before folks' criminal behavior escalated to a felony crime, resulting in long prison time. Our facility was the first jail where those national bodies assisted in piloting community-based reentry.

Since my retirement, I’ve returned to Maine, where I was born and raised. I deliberately located near Belfast, where this state has its reentry facility for men, and I've taught classes there and mentored four men before and after they were released. Those experiences, along with the lessons learned back in Kansas, have made me acutely aware of the barriers ex-felons face when they come home.

I was visiting Brunswick soon after retirement, spending time with my grandchildren, when a relative mentioned they had just read about something called College Guild in the local paper. I'd never heard of it, but he showed me the article and it turned out the College Guild office was a stone’s throw from my son’s home! I contacted Julie, the founder, and she recruited me as a volunteer “reader.” I found the interaction with incarcerated students extremely rewarding — it was nothing like grading papers, something I had done many times in my earlier years. In a few instances, it has been more work, but being a reader has been well worth my time.

After a few months as a reader, Julie contacted me about joining the College Guild board. She told me no one on the board had any direct experience working with incarcerated populations. Julie was and is a strong advocate. The road to College Guild is over an hour’s drive, a long way, especially in Maine’s harsh winters, but I strongly believe in this organization and hope that my experience and background can contribute something to accomplishing our mission.

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