By Julie Zimmerman
Before the germ of a nonprofit even takes shape in a founder’s mind, they meet people who inadvertently point the way.
In 1990, I started a publishing company merely to self-publish, but did well enough to take on enticing manuscripts. The first nudge toward College Guild arrived in the form of an unsolicited manuscript from a prisoner named Jimmy.
Jimmy Tayoun had been a big-city politician caught in a variety of white-collar crimes, and he was serving a 4-year sentence in a federal camp. Never one to languish, the indomitable Mr. Tayoun wrote a manual for people who had been indicted and found guilty titled Going to Prison? Though filled with humor, it was also a serious guidebook to help those who faced the frightening, life-changing experience of incarceration. Out of 60 publications, Jimmy’s book was my most successful, running to five editions. It was purchased not just by those who needed it, or simply for the novelty as a joke gift for a friend, but also by libraries and even colleges for use as a text book!
The next manuscript changed my focus as a publisher. It was a journalist’s study of capital punishment, and one of the chapters was about an inmate in Missouri named A.J. Bannister. After the book was released, I was stunned to receive a collect call one morning from A.J. himself. I accepted the charges and found myself chatting with a man on death row. A.J. was calling not to ask me for anything, but to offer help in marketing the book. Having a friendly, enjoyable conversation with a man who had committed murder and been deemed fit for death hit me hard. I had always opposed capital punishment, but now that issue had a face and a voice.
After that phone call, the books I began to publish all had the same underlying message: Prisoners are human and, for their sake and ours, they should be treated that way. We need to do everything possible to give them the tools to successfully reenter society. Some can never be released, but execution has no place in a civilized country.
Many would find my passion for abolishing capital punishment ironic, as my uncle was murdered shortly before I started publishing. But because of this, the victims of crime were never far from my mind while advocating better treatment for prisoners. I see no contradiction in compassion for both.
Jimmy Tayoun was released and went on to lead a long, happy, and very active life. Here’s to Jimmy, and the many incarcerated people I was privileged to know through publishing.
A.J. Bannister was executed by lethal injection. Here’s to A.J., Billy (TX), Brian (AL), Karl (TX), and Cliff (TX), who were put to death by their respective states.
You are the inspiration behind College Guild!