After Michel Bamani '08 finishes proofreading a fellow student's assignment, he sticks it in an envelope and mails it off. While other student tutors and writing assistants at Bowdoin meet to discuss changes with their tutees in person, Bamani relies on the postal service to relay his comments because his tutees aren't on campus.
They're in jail.
Bamani is a "reader" for College Guild, a Maine-based non-profit that offers inmates around the country free non-traditional correspondence courses. Prisoners in the program complete assignments as they find time, and volunteer "teachers" and "readers" throughout the country read and respond to the students' work.
"It's a chance for them to have an intellectual conversation with themselves through writing," Bamani said.
The program, which currently serves some 400 prisoners, was co-founded by Harpswell resident Julie Zimmerman in 2001. According to Zimmerman, College Guild is entirely sustained by one part-time administrator and about 40 volunteers, the majority of whom live in Maine.
Although participants in the program do not receive academic credit for completing the courses, Zimmerman maintains that College Guild offers its students important steps toward self-improvement.
"We're really listening and they don't have people listen to them very much," Zimmerman said in a phone interview with the Orient. "It has been shown that prisoners who are involved in education programs are more apt to be successful and not recidivate."
Adi Ranganath '09, one of three readers at Bowdoin, said he can see the connection between education and personal growth.
"It gives them an opportunity to engage in a structured academic dialogue, and I think this helps them to put their time in prison to constructive use," Ranganath said.
Although the program is focused on improving the day-to-day lives of the inmates themselves, volunteer readers in the program said that they have benefited from the correspondence as well.
"It's surprising to me that some of the prisoners are such amazing writers, that it's actually a pleasure to read their assignments," said Lindsey Bonner '08. "Sometimes it's even difficult to critique their writing because I feel it's more creative and insightful than mine."
Not all of the Bowdoin readers' experiences have been completely positive, however. Just ask Ranganath, whose former student's assignments were filled with racist and anti-Semitic tirades.
"For a while, I did my best to challenge his assumptions and arguments, but realized it was futile and moved on to a different participant," Ranganath said. "All the other people that I corresponded with were very thoughtful and respectful."
Although some readers might want to work with the same prisoners from week to week, Zimmerman said that permanent pairings are difficult, since so much time is spent mailing the assignments to and from the prisons, administrators, and readers.
"I think it could be interesting to get the same prisoner every time so I could see them develop as writers and respond to my suggestions, but it's not possible because they're doing assignments faster than they can get mailed back and forth," Bonner said.
Also, correspondence sometimes comes to an abrupt halt when a prisoner loses his or her belongings in a cell search or goes into solitary confinement and never gets his or her property back.
"I wouldn't say that people lose their property all the time, but the prisons are locked down a lot," Zimmerman said.
"For instance, we've had any number say, 'We couldn't get stamps because we've been locked in for three weeks for stabbings,'" she said.
College Guild accepts participants from all different backgrounds; men and women at any security level are eligible to apply. When readers receive assignments to critique, they are not informed where the prisoner is incarcerated, the length of the sentence, or the severity of the crime.
"To an certain extent, I don't think I'd want to know," said Bamani in regards to not knowing what crime the prisoner committed. Readers and prisoners are only provided with each other's first names.
"The really important thing about it is, it's not meant to be a pen-pal program," Zimmerman said. "What we say is you're friendly, but you're not a personal friend."
Although just three Bowdoin students are currently involved with College Guild, Bowdoin's connection to the program goes back to its inception.
"From the very beginning, we had a Bowdoin student actually teach a course on advanced physics," Zimmerman said. "He wrote his own curriculum and taught his own thing by himself. I couldn't understand any of it, but he had a dedicated following."
With some 400 prisoners currently on the program's wait list, there are still opportunities for more Bowdoin students to get involved, according to Bamani, who sits on the organization's board.
"I think for Bowdoin students that would like to get involved in community service but cannot make a regular commitment, this is a really good option, because you can write your responses whenever you have some down time," Ranganath said.
Even if Bowdoin students can only commit to reading one assignment a month, Bamani said that he thinks it makes a difference in both the prisoners' lives and in the ways the readers perceive them.
"I think it humanizes them," he said. "You read certain things and you think, 'Wow, they really have hearts.'"