Students Help Educate Prisoner Poets, Incarcerated Writers

Danielle Orchant ’14 and Kyra Babakian ’14

Since their first year at Bowdoin, Danielle Orchant ’14 and Kyra Babakian ’14 have been helping educate prisoners across the United States. The Bowdoin juniors read inmates’ poetry, short stories and essays, mostly handwritten in pencil, and then they send back detailed and encouraging suggestions.

They never learn the prisoners’ names or identities, and the prisoners never learn theirs. Nonetheless, the exchange is a moving experience, both Orchant and Babakian said.

Orchant and Babakian are leaders of the campus branch of an organization called College Guild, a national nonprofit based in Brunswick, Maine. College Guild was founded in 2001 by Julie Zimmerman, a former publisher, to offer prisoners a long-distance correspondence education.

“It’s just been eye-opening for me,” Babakian said. Both she and Orchant choose to work with prisoners on creative-writing exercises. She says she has been impressed by the range of voices, and by the thoughtful and often deeply personal works she reads. “For me, it’s cool to feel like you’re listening to someone who wants to be heard. It means a lot to them to be able to express themselves.”

Orchant echoes Babakian, saying her perceptions about prisoners have changed since volunteering with the College Guild. “It shattered all my preconceived notions of prison,” she said, adding that she’s been surprised, as well, by the “profound and deeply analytical” writing she has seen, as well as by the inmates’ need for connection. “[The College Guild] humanizes them in a dehumanizing situation,” she said.

Although College Guild has relied on a handful of Bowdoin student volunteers over the years, the organization saw a huge jump in participation last year by Bowdoin students, from about five or so to almost 40.

College Guild offers 20 non-credit courses, including ones in creative language, gardening, basic math, mythology, philosophy and the history of immigration. The courses have been designed to encourage reasoning, self-esteem and a sense of humor in prisoners who often have just a high school education or less, Zimmerman said. Prisoners can sign up for any of the free courses as long as they pay for postage, which they use to mail their finished units to Zimmerman. Zimmerman then sends out the packages to volunteer readers such as Orchant and Babakian.

Although College Guild has relied on a handful of Bowdoin student volunteers over the years, the organization saw a huge jump in participation last year by Bowdoin students, from about five or so to almost 40. Zimmerman credits Orchant and Babakian for doing effective outreach and stirring up interest.

Both Orchant and Babakian keep up their volunteer work throughout the academic year, and continue over the summer. Orchant receives a unit every three weeks; Babakian has chosen to receive one every 10 days. They have a week to read and mark up the units, which they do with handwritten notes to personalize their responses. It typically takes them two hours or so, they said.

Zimmerman says educational programs, or other programs like hers that treat prisoners with respect, have been shown to decrease recidivism rates. Although College Guild does not track its students after they leave prison, she says she and other volunteers have received a lot of feedback from grateful prisoners. This can be especially powerful for college students.

“They’re getting these huge reactions because prisoners are so shocked that those of us on the outside would treat them with respect or want to read what they have to say; it’s a fairly powerful experience,” Zimmerman said. “It’s hard to find volunteer jobs where you’re having so many people tell you how much you’ve done for me, that you’ve changed their life.”

Part of the Bowdoin Volunteer Corps of the McKeen Center, the Bowdoin College Guild is just one of many student-run community-service groups on campus.

Comments

  1. Glenda Orchant says:

    So very proud of the inspirational work done by the students. Their use of personal time seems to be well-compensated by the responses of the prisoners whose work they read. Kudos to Bowdoin College for providing such opportunities as these.

  2. Frank McEvoy says:

    As someone who has correspondent with a number of prisoners over the years, this type of work is more rewarding the anyone can imagine.

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