Eli student tutors help prison inmates prepare for degrees

Maura Fitzgerald ’08 spends two hours a week helping students with fractions, decimals and percentages. She says her students appreciate the one-on-one attention that comes with tutoring.

But unlike other Yalies who tutor in local schools, Fitzgerald’s pupils return to a jail cell after sessions.

Fitzgerald is one among a small group of Yale students who find their calling not in traditional settings for community service, but rather in local jails. Fitzgerald and Alana Tucker ’07 are currently the only two students tutoring at the New Haven Correctional Center, helping men at the facility earn their GED — the equivalent of a high school diploma. Their program, which is connected to the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, is one of a handful of prison tutoring programs in which Yale students participate.

The program started after Jessica Jiang ’08 tried to address what she saw as a lack of volunteers in prison schools, which operate in most correctional facilities.

Like Jiang, Connecticut State Rep. Bill Dyson said that the need for education in prisons is strong. Over his 30-year tenure, Dyson has made prison reform one of his key issues because of his belief that education, among other rehabilition efforts, helps inmates while they are in jail and after they are released.

Surveys of the prison system show that Connecticut prisons have a high recidivism rate, he said, meaning that a significant number of prisoners who are released wind up returning to jail. Receiving education while in jail can help inmates get back on their feet more quickly once they leave the facility, he said.

“When inmates come out better educated than when they went in, it might increase their likelihood to secure employment,” Dyson said.

But tutoring these prisoners is more than just about helping change societal trends. Because she often tutors people of her own age level, Fitzgerald said, the experience can sometimes be personal.

“The [man] I’m working with is twenty,” Fitzgerald said. “It certainly makes me think about how I got to be at Yale and how they got to be in jail.”

The people she works with at times remind her of friends she had in high school whose lives were similarly troubled, she said.

“When I’m sitting down with them, it’s sad, but it’s like I’m with people I knew from high school who were in circumstances they didn’t have control over,” she said. “I had teachers who would say it’s too late for these people to turn their lives around, but it’s never too late.”

Jiang, whose primary role in the program has been administrative, said that idea behind the program came from listening to an episode of the public radio program “This American Life” in which prisoners studied the fifth act of “Hamlet” with an instructor.

Their opinions and reflections on the play, read by students worldwide, were as insightful as those of students from Yale, she said. She was touched by the fact that the inmates were studying not for accolades, but for an appreciation of the text, she said.

“They’re not learning to become the next I-banker,” she said. “They’re just enjoying learning for learning’s sake, for the love of Shakespeare and short stories.”

But whatever the tutors may feel internally, they are encouraged to remain emotionally detached from the process and instead focus on the material at hand. It is strange juxtaposition, considering the students’ dedication to the small program and interaction they have with the inmates, which is often one-on-one.

Tucker said they are not allowed to discuss much other than academic work during tutoring sessions. Prison officials told her to neither share or solicit any personal information from the prisoners, she said.

“We call each other by our last names,” she said. “I call one of my [students] Mr. Baker, for example. I’m supposed to keep everything really professional.”

The program has its share of difficulties. From a technical standpoint, lengthy background checks and long processing times for paperwork often discourage many students from joining, Jiang said. Tucker had to wait one year after she initially signed up for the program before she was allowed to begin.

Sometimes the difficulties extend beyond the bureaucracy. Because the facility where Tucker tutors, which is located just two blocks away from Shaw’s grocery store on Whalley Avenue, is transitional, inmates are constantly cycling in and out. She said she has started to tutor a man one week, only to find him gone the next.

Though tutoring in the prison system is challenging, Fitzgerald said, it is more than worth it. Three weeks ago, the principal of the correction facility’s school told her one student that he had passed his GED exam and earned a high school diploma.

“The other prisoners were saying, ‘Don’t stop there, get that college diploma,’” she said. “The motivation is so palpable. I just thought of the difference between a Yale student’s high school graduation day and this one. People really have to work to change the structural inequalities of the system.”

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