In the prison system, crime and punishment go hand in hand. Crime and rehabilitation, while often cited as a goal of correctional facilities, is usually more elusive. That’s why when it does come about, it’s all the more meaningful.
Not long ago, inmates at California’s Soledad Prison pooled their resources—earned at from eight cents to a dollar an hour over the course of three years—to marshal most of the $32,000 tuition that enabled a student in need to stay in school.
The gesture was the culmination of a process set in motion by Jim Micheletti, an English and theology teacher/director of campus ministry and admissions assistant Mia Mirassou at the Palma School in Salinas.
Seven years ago, when the pair launched the Exercises in Empathy reading program at Soledad, they could not foresee the cascade of positive repercussions that would follow, nor envision how sowing a seed of change would eventually come full circle.
In the program, Palma students, faculty, and community members met regularly inside the prison to discuss books with inmates. More than a simple exchange of ideas, it became an opportunity to modify students’ preconceived perceptions and offered prisoners a chance to step outside of stereotypes.
“They go in thinking ‘monster,’ and they come out thinking ‘a man, a human being.’ They’ve done bad things, but there are no throwaway people here,” Micheletti told CNN.
In 2016, a reading club selection, ‘Miracle On The River Kwai’ by Ernest Gordon changed the trajectory of inmate Jason Bryant’s life. The book chronicles the transformation of a group of prisoners of war from a mindset of ‘survival of the fittest’ to one of solidarity and self-sacrifice.
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At the time, Bryant was serving a 26-year sentence for his part in an armed robbery. “Inside the POW camp, there were attitudes and behaviors that were very similar to what you typically see in prison today, with the gangs and scarcity mindset,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “A small group of men made a different decision, and they decide to look out for each other.”
The practice, “mucking” for one another, was so inspiring, that Bryant and co-defendant Ted Gray set out to emulate the book’s example.
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Bryant and Gray decided to channel their energy into creating a scholarship fund to muck for a deserving Palma student. Then sophomore Sy Newson Green, whose parents had both lost their jobs due to health issues, was chosen as the recipient.
For the next three years, Bryant, Gray, and a crew of dedicated fellow muckers known as the Phoenix Alliance worked behind prison walls gathering donations to finance Green’s education.
Green, now 19, graduated Palma last year and is currently a student at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University. Bryant, who was granted clemency 20 years into his sentence by California Governor Gavin Newsom, serves as the Director of Restorative Programs at CROP, a nonprofit that focuses on reducing the recidivism rate via training, career development, and stable housing.
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In a system where so many inmates are locked into a cycle of crime and punishment, Bryant found the key to lasting change began with helping others. He embraces his second chance with a full heart.
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“I don’t know about redemption… I can say this,” he told the Washington Post, “I know that those of us who have truly transformed our lives are committed to adding value in any way that we possibly can.”
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