Every week Julian Malinak ’10 travels to a foreign country.
At least that’s what he says it feels like when he volunteers at the New Haven Correctional Center on Whalley Avenue. Malinak said his work as the co-director of the Prison Education Project, a program through which a half-dozen Yalies tutor New Haven prison inmates in math and English, is very different from other tutoring jobs. With background checks required for all students who participate, the program brings together individuals from two vastly backgrounds but with a shared goal in mind.
Malinak said he believed he could have a positive impact as an outsider coming into the prison when he used to work with a prisoner named Orlando.
“He had been involved with robbery and drugs,” Malinak said, adding that he was helping Orlando with his writing. “A lot of these guys don’t get a lot of interaction with guys outside the prison.”
Then, one day, Malinak came to tutor and found that Orlando had been transferred to the Bridgeport prison. He said he missed the connection the two had forged.
“These guys that are coming to the school know that they need help with reading or writing,” Malinak said. “It’s not like some classrooms where people don’t want to be there. Often times they have problems focusing or issues with learning, but they all want to be there which is really nice.”
The job can feel strange, he said, because after working with an inmate for a few weeks, the next session they can be gone, given the prison’s high transfer rate.
“You meet people and you don’t see them again,” he said.
The student-initiated Prison Education Project, formed 15 years ago, has expanded recently, said Dorthula Green, principal of the Connecticut Department of Correction. In addition to the six current members, 10 students will join at the end of the semester, pending the completion of background checks, Malinak said.
On average, Connecticut prison inmates have reading and math skills at a sixth grade level, Green said, and prisons use education programs to help them to attain marketable skills upon their release. Tutors focus on helping younger inmates in their quest to obtain a General Education Degree, the equivalent of a high school diploma. Inmates between the ages of 18 and 21 have a right to be educated in the prison system, Green said, but for older inmates, an education is a privilege.
At the jail, inmates — clad in tan-colored uniforms — file into the classrooms two days a week for tutoring sessions. They sit with tutors at wooden desks, surrounded by brightly-colored posters featuring basic arithmetic equations, while others offer words of encouragement.
While sitting at one of the wooden desks, Jamarr Quarles — a 34-year-old inmate who has been at the prison since June — said the program has been an important part of his education at the prison.
Quarles, who dropped out of high school in 10th grade, has been working with the Yale tutors for several weeks, adding that they are not only smart but very patient. He said he has been struggling with the essay portion of the GED exam, so the Yale tutors helped him with structuring paragraphs in his writing.
“It’s good to have the one-on-one time outside the classroom because they really break it down,” he said. “I just got along with the tutors — they’re good to communicate with.”
Quarles, who has a quiet demeanor, soft features, and a wide smile, said he hopes to attend cooking school after getting his degree.
“I want to open a restaurant with different kinds of food,” he said. “I want to have an Italian, Spanish, and Soul Food mix.”
Marcus Gollet, a 30-year-old who dropped out of school after fifth-grade, also said the program has helped him move toward his larger life-goals. While working on simple math equations and improper fractions with Malinak, he explained that he was glad for the tutoring and the opportunity to get his GED, which he said could help him find stable work in the real world.
The all-male New Haven jail serves as a holding place for local criminals until they are sentenced, and then they are moved to one of the state’s prisons. For this reason, the jail has a high turnover rate among inmates, creating a “continuity challenge” that can make tutoring difficult, said Andrius Banevicus, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Correction.
Still, despite the difficulty of continuity, students in the tutoring program said they are able to see results in a short period of time, especially because the prisoners are working toward a shared goal — a GED. Taking part in this effort is what keeps tutors coming back, tutor Josh Macey ’12 said.
“At Yale there are a lot of ‘raising awareness things’ that don’t necessarily affect any change,” he said. “But tutoring prisoners and helping them get a GED is a way to actually be active in the New Haven community.”