Students, incarcerated people form partnerships

Jacob Posner

Greg Parslow, who is no longer incarcerated, went to the Berkshire County House of Correction (BHoC) for selling narcotics. He had joined a gang at a state institution, but while at BHoC, he renounced his membership and the violent ideology in which he had been indoctrinated. 

When he entered the prison system, he had been a normal kid, he said. When he emerged from his first incarceration, he had become the leader of a gang. He had been “W94279” while in prison, which he can still recite without pause. 

Upon Parslow’s arrival at BHoC, though, members of the staff sat down with him and asked him how he was doing, the first time someone had done that since he had entered the prison system. They shook his hand, too.

The wider prison system and BHoC are like “night and day,” Parslow said. A sentence at a House of Correction cannot exceed two-and-a-half years, limiting the severity of the offenses for those incarcerated.

He realized that drugs had destroyed his community and that they could have destroyed him. He didn’t want to spread them anymore.

“I remember having a realization: I don’t want crack cocaine or heroin on the streets for my little sister to pick up,” he said. He attributed his change of heart to education. He originally took the Inside-Out class, which takes place in BHoC but is taught by a Williams professor and includes both Williams students and incarcerated people, for the “good time, to get out of jail a little bit earlier,” but it changed his life.

The Inside-Out class is just one example of the College’s programs that foster interaction between Williams students and incarcerated people; other primarily student-run initiatives include a pen-pal program, tutoring at BHoC and speaking events on campus.

Organized through the Center for Learning in Action, the Inside-Out class brings Williams students and incarcerated people together at BHoC to take a Williams class. The Positive Pathways Partnership (P3) helps those incarcerated at BHoC with the Inside-Out class  or to pass a high school equivalency exam. 

Going beyond Berkshire County, Converging Worlds offers a pen-pal program that pairs students at the College primarily with activists working within the prison system and with LGBTQ+ people in the system. Learning Intervention for Teens (LIFT), an alternative-sentencing program, pairs students at the College with teenagers in the juvenile court system. 

While each organization offers vastly different programming, none claim to change the world, and each recognizes the mutually beneficial nature of its programming: Williams students learn about the wider world and go beyond the Purple Bubble, and those who are incarcerated may feel less isolated and perhaps empowered. 

Inside-Out Class

Based on Temple University’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, the Inside-Out class takes place at the BHoC library. Different professors teach different classes to nine Williams students and nine incarcerated students each semester.

This semester, Associate Professor of English Bernie Rhie is teaching “Meditation and Modern American Life,” a class that explores “how Buddhism came to be the profoundly important cultural force in American life that it is today,” according to the course description. The course also includes various meditation techniques.

Kayla Gillman ’21 is a teaching assistant for Rhie’s class. Along with going to class, she offers optional office hours at BHoC, where she and incarcerated students talk about the readings and the mechanics of writing.

Going into her first Inside-Out class, taught by Professor of Psychology Kris Kirby, was “honestly scary,” she said. “I had never interacted with any sort of jail or prison and the only thing I knew about it was what I knew from the media.”

 Despite her initial nervousness, Gillman said the men were welcoming, friendly and smart.

“I think the Inside-Out classrooms really work, and there is a camaraderie that forms, and there is a trust that builds over the course of the semester, and that’s because people are coming every week,” Gillman said. They are not coming by for an hour to observe but rather showing up consistently. 

Devyn, who is incarcerated at BHoC and taking Rhie’s class, said that, “without fail, it’s been an open, honest discussion” because the Williams students don’t “come off judgmental or probing.” Alan Bianchi, of the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office, requested that Devyn’s last name not be included in this article for his safety.

Charlotte Oakley ’21, who took “The Good Life in Greek and Roman Ethics” with Associate Professor of Philosophy Keith McPartland last semester, said she found the discussion open in a way she did not with most other Williams classes.

“So many of the people in the Inside-Out class really, really taught me to challenge these notions that I had about the world,” she said. “I remember I had this really interesting conversation with one of the [incarcerated] students on our last day of class. First of all, it was so interesting, and I think we had this really deep and in-depth conversation on politics, and particularly on race relations in American politics. It was the kind of conversation that I was never able to have at Williams.”

Parslow, who took Professor of Sociology James Nolan’s Inside-Out class on foreign observations of America, also noticed that his classmates’ beliefs were challenged. 

One day, a Williams student in his class said she wanted to be a policymaker and said she would reduce minimum sentencing for gun law violations. “I had a conversation with her, and I asked her, ‘Have you ever heard a gun go off before?’ and she said, ‘No, I haven’t.’ And I was like, ‘Would you be worried about having to stay away from windows or keeping your kids inside because of stray bullets?’ She said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘In the projects, where these things happen, you might be causing more harm by reducing mandatory sentences.’”

He told her that if gun laws were less stringent, especially in high-crime neighborhoods, people might be more likely to pick up a gun and commit more crimes, “thinking they won’t go to jail as long.”

It seemed to him that his argument made her question her own assumptions about the world. Parslow said the class also made him and his fellow incarcerated classmates question their own fundamental beliefs.

Devyn said that his language changed since starting the class.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to sit down with everyday people and talk about things other than” the gym, canteen, war stories, former girlfriends and crimes they didn’t get caught for, he said. 

In the class, he can be himself, he said.

Bianchi, who was present during the interview with Devyn, added, “You’re two different people” on the block and in class.

All the Williams students interviewed about the Inside-Out class said they were refreshed by the openness of the incarcerated students, in contrast to classes at the College, where they said many students try to show off how smart and articulate they are. 

The class made Oakley question what it meant to be a student. She said she has noticed that she tries “to articulate something in a way that makes me seem informed and smart, and [the class] made me realize a lot about how much of a waste of time that is and how real responses to questions oftentimes are so much better and more important than trying to come up with an answer that sounds smart.”

Positive Pathways Partnership

While the students interviewed all noted that many of the incarcerated students seemed more prepared for class than those from the College and that they had a lot to offer to the class, they were sometimes lacking in formal education. Incarcerated students might need help structuring essays, for example. Positive Pathways Partnership (P3) attempts to serve that need, among other goals.

P3 runs a weekly tutoring program, which offers assistance for incarcerated students in the Inside-Out class and for those trying to pass high school equivalency exams. It also facilitates a weekly book club, led by Ted McNally ’20. 

Emily Marquis ’22, one of P3’s coordinators, said that there is a potential for the tutors, as younger people, to seem patronizing. She and the other coordinator, Kitty Holbrooke ’22, talk to the other tutors about how to avoid that.

“We recognize that we are all learning from each other,” Marquis said. “These are adults who have way more life experience than us. We’re helping them with academics but bonding with them in other ways. One of the goals is self-confidence on both sides, with tutors being more comfortable interacting with people who they wouldn’t every day.”

Sharif Rosen, the College’s Muslim chaplain, assistant director of the Center for Learning in Action and staff advisor for P3, said that the program offers a way for those incarcerated at BHoC to stay positive.

“Teaching people how to do algebra, geometry, pre-algebra is a vehicle by which these other, more existential, essential aspects of the interaction are facilitated,” Rosen said. Learning math is important, but P3’s tutoring is primarily a vehicle “through which a person begins to find wholeness and a sense of purpose.”

A critical goal of the program lies in a similar idea for Holbrooke. “More than [academic tutoring], we’re providing somebody to talk to that’s not another inmate they have years of baggage with … just a regular person who’s genuinely interested in their life and there to converse,” she said.

Both Holbrooke and Marquis have noticed that the men often ask them why they are at BHoC.

“They’re like, your parents are okay with you being here?” Holbrooke said. Marquis added that others ask why the students would spend time with them.

“This builds confidence just seeing that we see them as humans,” Marquis explained. “That should not be something that has to be surprising to them.”

Aside from a couple hours tutoring at BHoC each week, Marquis said she does not hear much at the College about BHoC.

“It’s so easy to feel detached from everything related to the prison system when you don’t have any personal connection to it,” she said. “Even though we have a house of corrections like half an hour from our school, I don’t really hear about it outside the context of P3. It’s very separate.”

Converging Worlds

The goal of Converging Worlds, a registered student organization at the College, is in part to connect Williams students with the outside world, according to Maria Romero ’20, the club’s president. 

Both elite New England colleges and the prison system are disconnected from the general population, Romero said. “They’re both closed off from the general population. That’s why it’s called Converging Worlds: because we’re trying to converge those two closed off communities that never talk to each other.” According to Romero, while both the College and prisons are removed from the wider population, they are especially far removed from each other.

Converging Worlds connects students at the College and incarcerated people by bringing speakers to campus and running a pen-pal program. It also supports the Justice League, a separate program run by Eli Cytrynbaum ’20 that tutors students at Pittsfield’s Reid Middle School.

The organization aims to support those working for change outside the College.

“The people who are working on the frontline for big structural changes aren’t on this campus,” Romero said. “They’re activists who actually experience incarceration themselves. There are people who go out and risk their records and their lives for protests and movements.”

The Converging Worlds pen-pal program connects Williams students primarily with incarcerated activists, whose prison mail addresses are available on the internet, and with LBGTQ+ incarcerated people, whose addresses are accessible through Black and Pink, a national prison abolitionist organization.

The benefits of having a pen pal are mutual, according to Romero. “It’s to help Williams students and people on the inside,” she said. “It’s a mutual benefit thing. It’s very grounding to know that Williams isn’t the end-all, be-all of things, and that there are other people outside with their own, vastly different issues, struggling in their own ways. At least for me, personally, it helps me remember that I am a human being and not a Williams robot.”

For those incarcerated, she said, the program could help relieve isolation. Most prisons have a mail call system, “so they’ll actually call out the names of the people who are receiving letters, so everybody knows who’s getting contact from the outside,” Romero said. She called it “a symbol of who still has people that care for them — go out of their way to contact them on the outside, versus people who don’t. Not getting mail can be an isolating thing.”

The goal of Converging Worlds “is less saviorism, like we’re going to go make these people’s lives better,” she said. “It’s more like, we are going to start a connection and a relationship that is mutually beneficial. [My pen pal] really appreciated the letters, but I did, too.” 

“You have to just accept the fact that you will literally never see the end of it in your lifetime,” Romero said, echoing a point made by Adam Foss, founder of Prosecutor Impact and one of the speakers Converging Worlds brought on campus. “That’s left to other, future generations.”