Ephs tutor inmates at Berkshire House of Corrections

Positive Pathways Partnerships allows College students and BHoC inmates to empathize with one another and discuss social issues. Photo courtesy of Sharif Rosen.

Many might not be surprised to hear that, out of the various activities to do on a Thursday night at the College, eight members of the student body volunteer as tutors.

But to elaborate, these students take a 30-minute drive to the Berkshire House of Corrections (BHoC) located in Pittsfield, Mass., spending upwards of two hours teaching elementary level math, reading and writing to seven to 10 navy jumpsuit-clad inmates.

Positive Pathways Partnerships (P3) allows students at the College to tutor BHoC students once a week to help them pass the High School Equivalency Test (HiSET), which gives out-of-school teens and adults a high school education certificate. The Center for Learning in Action (CLiA), in tandem with BHoC, established P3 in the fall of 2016 as a way for students at the College to engage with and support the incarcerated populations of the Berkshires.

This is not just a tutoring program, however. According to Assistant Director for Community Engagement for CLiA and P3 Coordinator Sharif Rosen, P3 is a critical and eye-opening platform for students at the College to empathize with those who are affected by lifelong barriers and a broken social justice system.

“It would be hard to underestimate the stakes riding on passing exams like the HiSET or GED,” Rosen said. “Individuals with time served face lifelong barriers to accessing employment, housing and other basic necessities that speak to the extent to which our society can be unforgiving and unwilling participants in the redemptive process of our fellow human beings.”

Thus, P3 is an opportunity for both College tutors and BHoC students to realize the power of dialogue and empathy, a process that has humbled the tutors through their interactions with a highly misunderstood group.

“I saw a lot of my brothers in these guys,” tutor Halle Schweizer ’21 said of the students. To her, they are not inmates with criminal records, but “people in their purest form,” she said.

Likewise, Kevin Zhou ’20, who joined P3 in August, said that tutoring the students allowed him to see them in a new light that contrasts with the way popular culture and the media portray the incarcerated.

“You do have certain ideas of what these people are going to be like – violent, or stubborn, or irresponsible or immature –  but then you talk to them and they’re just other guys who maybe regret the decision that they made,” Zhou said. “They’re just students. They want to be there to learn.”

Indeed, according to Zhou, Schweizer and Michael Crisci ’21, many of the students are excited to learn, and rarely, if ever, take breaks. Two BHoC students have passed the HiSET within the past semester. One student, who aspires to become an electrician once he leaves BHoC, spends his time poring over books about electrical engineering. Another student, who already passed the HiSET, still comes back to tutoring sessions, and several students constantly ask for additional reading materials such as Macbeth or philosophical texts.

Seeing such eagerness has made Crisci more cognizant of the importance of seeing the BHoC students as people who want to make a better future for themselves despite their past situations.

“These people want to change,” Crisci said. “They want to go to community college… They still have so much potential, and it’s not over for them. They have children. A big lesson I learned is…to just not judge these titles we give people in society.”

Interacting with the BHoC students has also given the tutors greater perspective on the privileges they have been given as members of the College. In turn, this has motivated the tutors to address social issues and think outside the confines of the Purple Bubble.

“Conversations with the inmates are just as helpful to all of us,” Zhou said. “The inmates always tell me, ‘First of all, life is never as bad as you think it is. As proof, I am in prison and you are not.’ And as a student at Williams, people are stressed all the time. You’re thinking about your grades, your career, and you’re like, ‘If I get a B+ or a B-, if I get a C on a test, it’s going to be completely over.’ But obviously that’s not true. When you talk to an inmate and look at them, their career is not over, their life is not over.”

Admittedly, the program still faces challenges. The BHoC students’ varying ranges of academic levels makes it difficult for the understaffed group of tutors to always best meet their needs. And despite the progress made each tutoring session, inmates cannot help but still feel pangs of hopelessness at the lack of fairness in the justice system.

“For most who have been locked [up], passing the exam and completing one’s sentence represents just the end of one set of struggles before starting the next,” Rosen said. “What can be different with the diploma in hand is the proof that one set a positive goal and succeeded in achieving it. With that comes a renewed sense of purpose that can steady one when confronting the inevitable challenges that lay ahead.” 

While she struggles with how to keep up the students’ morale in times of doubt, seeing their sense of purpose drives Schweizer to keep going to BHoC each week. “What matters more is the fact that we show up [to tutor],” Schweizer said. “I never, ever regret going … This is our chance to give opportunities to people who don’t have them.”

For these reasons, she said, having direct interactions with the BHoC students makes all the difference.

“I’d say that the power of people is what P3 is really about,” Schweizer said. “The power of being present. It’s not just about tutoring; it’s about showing that you care and that you’re willing to spend time with people who aren’t being heard.”

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