By Julie Zimmerman
Due to publicity surrounding my books on criminal justice issues, I got a call from a woman named Ramsay who had won a grant to work with the boys at the old Maine Youth Center. She invited me to come with her to facilitate a session on art/poetry there. It was wonderful to interact with the boys in person, but I only participated a few times because my new friend took the highly unusual step of returning the grant money. She was so frustrated by the lack of cooperation by staff at the Youth Center, she couldn’t carry out the program that won her the grant.
Meanwhile, I had been visiting men I’d met through publishing at the Maine State Prison in Thomaston. It was around this time I’d lost the ability to drive due to seizures, but luckily friends helped out by driving me so I could continue my visits. I was interested in offering a class at the prison, but couldn’t get it going—my frustration wasn’t staff, but my own increasing physical limitations.
One day, Ramsay picked me up, heading for Thomaston. I was venting and said something about how much easier it would be to offer classes through the mail. I wasn’t all that serious, but the look I got from my friend was! On that one round-trip drive to Maine State Prison, the two of us conceptualized the organization down to the structure, courses, and name! Within the week, Ramsay submitted the paperwork necessary for nonprofit status.
One big problem for me was that I still had a publishing company to run. I wanted to wait on College Guild, but an opportunity came along we felt we couldn’t pass up: An administrator at the Windham prison’s pre-release program had agreed to let us come to the prison to “test drive” a course in person. The feedback from the participants would be invaluable. At the same time that four men from Windham were working on College Guild assignments, four of my penpals or their friends took the same course by mail.
We discovered the same problem Ramsay had run into at the Youth Center—consistency. In our sessions at Windham, it was rare to have all four men in attendance the whole time. Something was always coming up to call one away, while those taking the course through correspondence completed every unit.
Soon after, with a small blurb in the CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants) newsletter, College Guild opened its doors. It was all word of mouth after that—we had a three-person Board of Directors (the legal minimum), who began recruiting volunteers. Ramsay took on the major work of administration, in addition to her courses and students. After a year, she created another nonprofit for prisoners and left College Guild. I’ll always be grateful for the work we did together to launch this organization.
There were times over the past eighteen years when I wondered if this organization could survive. But our students have made it so that giving up is never a possibility—not when so many have written to say, “You’ve made me a better man,” “You saved my life,” “I owe you the entire world.” What a gift!