Every other Saturday afternoon, Elise Takahama and three other BU Empowerment League volunteers drive to the Boston Pre-Release Center to read short stories, share personal experiences and participate in thought-provoking conversations.
The correctional facility—the first amongst its kind in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—is a structured program that allows gradual transition from prison life to the community by means of reintegration through releases to work, education, and counseling programs.
The afternoon begins as the volunteers sit in a circle with a small group of inmates—around 3 to 5—and read poems and stories aloud. After analyzing key messages in the works, Elise says the conversations flow into topics such as social justice issues and the presidential election.
“We read a short story about this elementary school and [that] branched off into this whole conversation about public education at younger levels and how important those early years are for kids,” Elise said.
Elise says inmates are willing to have candid conversations about real world problems. They talk about their wives and children and share their regrets in life.
“They talk about how they have learned a lot in however many years in jail they’ve been…I always come back so inspired and motivated because I feel like there is this mentality that these people are bad or dangerous. But you go in and talk to them and they’re not. They have interests, jobs and people who they love,” she said.
When dealing with a part of society that is entirely cut off from the real word, it is easy to assume what life is like in prison. Select mugshots from sensationalized crime stories flash across television screens nationwide during the 5 o’clock news and it becomes easy to judge a whole group based upon the stories and images of few.
The Petey Greene Program is one organization that defies prisoner stereotypes by training volunteers, usually undergraduate and graduate students, to provide free tutoring and educational help to incarcerated individuals throughout cities on the East Coast.
The program’s name stems from Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, Jr., a popular radio talk show host and community activist who turned his life around after being imprisoned for armed robbery in the 1960’s.
Eleanor Roberts, Massachusetts and Rhode Island Regional Field Manager, highlights the importance of combating misconceptions about prisoners and education through the program’s volunteer training.
“Part of our training that we have our volunteers go through is about ethical volunteerism and a large part of that is the stereotypes people have about people in prison and the way we talk about them and the way that our media portrays people. One major distinction we highlight is the cultural image of someone who is incarcerated and the cultural image of a student…we’re working with people who have both of those identities,” she said.
With education, there are always two sides. Volunteers work alongside inmates and use their knowledge to assist with math, English and other subjects. In return, they learn from the inmates about the realities of prison life.
“A lot of times I get questions about what it’s like to go into the classroom and stuff, I think people imagine a very different reality,” Roberts said. “Any time I’ve tutored I’ve worked with just really highly motivated students and it’s a paradoxical difference than the cultural imagination,” she said.
As college students, we each have a high school diploma. Many of us had the opportunity to take AP and IB courses. We attend class and are surrounded by others who value education. The reality we share is not the reality for most incarcerated people.
“The reason our organization is called the Petey Greene program is because we are named in honor of a black American man who was incarcerated and went onto be extremely successful,” Roberts said. “We think that it’s extraordinarily important to center that in the work that we do because we work with students who often haven’t had a first chance and have often been subjected to racial discrimination and education discrimination,”she said.
Programs like Petey Greene and Prison Book Club are sparking important conversations about education inequality and basic human rights issues. Whenever there is inequality, there is good reason to seek reform. Education impacts us all, and for that reason alone, it is worth fighting for.