When Yazmine Nichols ’15 arrived at the College her freshmen year, an unexpected letter awaited her in her SU box. The return address read, “Collins Correctional Facility of Collins, NY,” below the name of an acquaintance from her hometown who had recently been incarcerated.
Despite her initial timidity, Nichols began writing letters to her friend throughout his prison sentence, “discussing everything from religion and dating, to friendships, college and future career goals,” she said. The budding pen-pal exchange led not only to a sustained friendship beyond the letters – the two even celebrated Thanksgiving together following his release – but also the inception of Converging Worlds, a new club at the College that facilitates pen-pal relationships between College students and prison inmates at local correctional facilities.
Devoted to promoting social awareness and giving voice to one of society’s frequently marginalized populations, Converging Worlds currently enables 15 pen-pal connections since its recent founding last September, and is looking forward to establishing more during the spring term. Interested students attend weekly meetings, at which an ongoing documentary and discussion series is held, and write at least once a month to their pen-pals. According to Kiyana Hanley ’17, the program’s co-president, pen-pal selection is based on compatibility factors such as shared interests, hobbies, tastes or similar backgrounds, and pseudonyms are mandatory components of the correspondence to protect the writers’ safety and privacy.
Hanley, who like Nichols hails from Brooklyn, NY, highlighted the impact such a program can have for its often overlooked participants, stating, “I come from a place where a lot of people I know have been incarcerated, family members included. When they are gone, it is almost as if they are suddenly nonexistent on the outside. With this club, though, for once this population is acknowledged. It lets the inmates know they are not as forgotten as they think and feel they are. It is good to know people are still thinking about you beyond the prison walls, even if they don’t know you personally, but are still interested in your story anyway.”
Through the club’s meetings, events and exchanges, Nichols and the executive board are seeking to emphasize the importance of these dialogues as a mechanism for promoting education in a criminal justice system which is hard to escape.
“Building relationships with outsiders is important for incarcerated persons because
it gives them a connection to the reality that lies beyond the walls of their respective facilities,” Nichols said. “It has been proven that imprisonment is not an effective deterrent to committing future criminal acts. We have seen time and time again that our current prison system just isn’t working and I believe that rehabilitation is a potential fix. Pen-pal exchanges are vital because they enable alienated inmates to feel like they are part of society again. If inmates can use written letters to begin assimilating before their release date, I think that’s a step in the right direction.”
Hanley also reinforced the power of “cycle-breaking” education. Hearing about the benefits of a college education firsthand from students can provide motivation to the incarcerated criminals for pursuing future higher education themselves.
Muslim Chaplain Bilal Ansari serves as Converging Worlds’ faculty advisor. “Perhaps the inmates will make better use of their time in prison, be inspired to improve themselves, rethink their choices and learn to question their decision-making and leave prison with a burning desire to go to college after developing a healthy appetite through the interactions and resonating with the student narrative,”said Ansari.
All members of the executive board also addressed the resounding benefits the extended pen-pal relationship can have for students at the College. “Just to have that insight on the stories, lives, and struggles of inmates is invaluable as you leave the purple bubble someday to participate in and determine our society’s structure. That relationship keeps you more aware of people different from you,” Hanley said.
Converging Worlds is looking to eventually expand its mission. It hopes to follow in the footsteps of other colleges, such as Dartmouth and Wesleyan, which have gone so far as to establish interactive programs within correctional facilities, including courses taught in prisons where inmates can learn alongside college students for college credit. The club’s leaders are seeking to conduct more events alongside the Law Society, plan more jail visits and establish connections with maximum-security and women’s prisons in addition to the current collaboration with the all-male facility of Collins.
Despite the litany of bureaucratic and logistic obstacles within both the College and prison administrations, the leaders of Converging Worlds remain optimistic. “We are looking forward to building more interactive programs, some that entail going to the prisons, doing book drives or maybe even having the inmates come to Williams to take classes and someday earn a Williams degree. Maybe that type of expansion is too idealistic with the logistics of both the criminal justice system and the College’s rules, but it would be very meaningful for the Williams student body,” Hanley said.
A Claiming Williams Day event hosted by Converging Worlds and the Law Society called “On the Outside: A Multiplicity of Identities,” at which current program participants and inmates were to lead a panel discussion, was cancelled due to inclement weather and transportation issues. The executive board communicated, however, that they were looking forward to bringing the event to campus in March.