Williams is forging connections with the criminal justice system and those living within it.
Her mother didn’t have many details, and Nichols, who’d seen many arrests in her low-income, high-crime neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., didn’t need them. She just wanted to support a friend who, in his own way, was adjusting to a new environment away from home and loved ones.
She wrote to Mateek in prison, telling him about her academic struggles, her hopes for the future and her desire to remain close to her roots. Mateek wrote back about his daily life and his aspirations, the books he was reading and the religious practice he was developing.
How had they ended up in such vastly different places in their lives? It’s a question that gnawed at Nichols, who in 2013 started Converging Worlds, a pen-pal exchange between Williams students and people imprisoned throughout the Northeast. The group has since grown to 33 students and expanded its role to include tutoring at-risk teens at the Juvenile Resource Center in Pittsfield, Mass., and raising awareness on campus about mass incarceration.
“Converging Worlds isn’t here to save people,” says Nichols, an English and religion major who’s now studying ethics at Union Theological Seminary. “We’re trying to reciprocate the learning experience so that people challenge their ideas about what they believe and why they believe it.”
That’s the driving force behind two other initiatives that connect Williams students with people who have been arrested. One, the Learning Intervention for Teens (LIFT) program, brings juvenile offenders to campus during Winter Study to work on a research project with Williams student mentors. The other is a course, now in its fourth year, that’s held in the Berkshire County Jail and House of Corrections and enrolls nine students from Williams plus nine students who are incarcerated and nearing the ends of their sentences.
Converging Worlds, LIFT and the “Inside-Out” course, inspired by a program at Temple University, offer students “a slice of experience they’re not going to get otherwise,” says Paula Consolini, director of Williams’ Center for Learning in Action. “It goes beyond volunteering to real community engagement and learning, both on the part of our students and the people they’re connecting with.”
“There is something about writing to a person behind bars that changes your perspective. It is a constant reminder that … injustice exists.” Yazmine Nichols ’15
examining the good life
Keith McPartland was working on his doctorate at Cornell University when he signed up to teach philosophy to people imprisoned at the state correctional facility in Auburn, N.Y. There he met a man who’d been convicted of being an accessory to a murder. The man was tried as an adult, even though he was 16 years old at the time of the crime.
“We were almost exactly the same age, within a week of each other,” McPartland says of the inmate. “I thought about myself at the age of 16. Even if something had gone sideways, there were so many barriers between me and jail. It really got me thinking.”
The questions he kept turning over in his head were philosophical ones. How much control do people truly have over the circumstances of their lives? How much does the luck of where one is born, and to whom and when, influence whether he or she ends up in prison or a Ph.D. program?
For the past two years, McPartland, now a philosophy professor, and his students have addressed these questions and others in Williams’ Inside-Out class. In a course called The Good Life in Greek and Roman Ethics, taught on Monday nights in the library of the jail in Pittsfield, they explore central texts in ancient Greek and Roman moral philosophy and look at the ways thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle and Cicero characterize happiness, virtue and the relation between the two. Often the discussion turns to what it means to live a good life.
Each week, McPartland and the nine Williams students, known as “outside” students in Inside-Out parlance, board a van to make the 30-minute trip from campus to Pittsfield, a city of 44,000 that’s seen increasing problems with heroin, gang activity and youth violence.
The jail itself might resemble a community college were it not for the razor wire atop the perimeter fencing. In a lobby filled with visitors, many of whom are young women and children, McPartland and the students lock up their belongings; they’re allowed to take only their textbooks, notebooks and pens beyond the front desk. A corrections officer waves a hand-held metal detector over each of the Williams visitors, and they’re led down a hallway to the jail’s library.
There they join nine “inside” students clad in blue uniform shirts with the letters “BCHC” on the back. Most of them are in their 20s or 30s. Almost all have undergone treatment for substance abuse (some 88 percent of the 270 incarcerated there struggle with addiction, according to Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler). Many are enrolled in programs offered by the jail, including addiction recovery and life skills. At least one inside student took college classes before his arrest. And, like the Williams students, they’ll receive four college credits after completing Inside-Out.
Each three-hour class session alternates between discussions and small-group work. During one class close to the end of the
semester, McPartland led off with a question for the entire group: If you could live in a box that would give you the illusion of the life you want, would you choose to do it? Or would you remain in the physical world, with all of its problems and disappointments?
“I might choose the box if I could come and go when I please,” said classics major Chris Siemer ’16.
James, an inside student and former U.S. Marine, shook his head. “I don’t want limits. Once you are in the box, you are cut off from the ability to experience something greater.”
A younger inside student, Jason, who served in Iraq, nodded in agreement. He described the joy he felt when he got married and had children and then the pain of getting divorced shortly after his service ended. “But as long as I continue growing and learning,” he said, “I can make choices that improve my situation.”
The stories of how some of the inside students came to be incarcerated and what their lives were like beforehand came out slowly over the course of the semester. But the focus was the material and the students’ ideas, McPartland says, and the exchanges enriched both groups.
“There’s a really nice passage in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics where he says that ethics is not a proper area of study for young people, because proper study of ethics requires life experience,” McPartland says. “I think there is some truth in that. The inside students bring a different set of experiences to the table, and they soon realize that they have a lot to say about the issues we are talking about and that their peers take what they have to say seriously.”
“I thought about myself at the age of 16. Even if something had gone sideways, there were so many barriers between me and jail. It really got me thinking.” Professor Keith McPartland
giving troubled teens a lift
The teenager was noticeably uncomfortable as he stood before a crowd in Griffin 3 one evening in January. Swallowing hard, he launched into a PowerPoint presentation about the career of comedian and actor Kevin Hart, who overcame his own troubled background to find success. When the teenager finished, the classroom filled with applause and cheers.
It was the final gathering of this year’s LIFT group, 15 teenagers who spent three afternoons per week on campus in January, working one-on-one with 15 Williams students enrolled in a Winter Study course of the same name. A unique partnership between the college and the Berkshire County Juvenile Court in Pittsfield, the program provides an alternative for teens who would otherwise be sentenced to probationary terms.
“These kids are on the brink of success, and they really benefit from seeing what college is and that they can do something beyond high school,” says Nancy Macauley, the juvenile probation officer involved with LIFT.
The goal of the seven-year-old program is to give teens “the experience that learning can be fun, can center on topics that matter to them and can be empowering,” according to the Winter Study course’s description. “If the teens see school as something other than a form of incarceration, they will be motivated to stay there and to succeed.”
With the help of Williams students, the teens investigate, develop a report on and present their conclusions about a topic of their choosing. One of this year’s participants wants to be a songwriter, so her mentor found a music professor she could work with and helped her compose an original song. Another teen wants to be an architect, so her partner connected her to the art department and spent the month helping her construct a scale model of a house. Past projects have included exploring the causes of teen methamphetamine use, examining teen pregnancy rates and determining whether Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant should be deemed the best all-time shooting guard in basketball.
At the end of the program, the teens present their projects to an audience that includes the Berkshire County Juvenile Court judges and probation officers, the county district attorney and assistant district attorneys, Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn ’93, Williams faculty and community members, and their own peers and families. By the time the closing remarks are made, hugs abound and tears of joy—and relief—are flowing.
“Getting up in front of a room full of people to present their projects is terrifying for many of the teens and for the Williams students,” says Hannah Levin ’16, who for the past three years led the team of student organizers who run LIFT. “But they are really proud of themselves when they hear everyone cheering for them.”
The Williams students also benefit greatly from the connections they make. “They’re changed by the experience,” says political science professor Cheryl Shanks, who serves with Wynn as the faculty advisers for the course. “They remember it for the rest of their lives.”
Says Macauley, who works part time in the college’s Campus Safety and Security Department, “The Williams students have an opportunity to go beyond the purple bubble. They get a brief jolt of reality, and it opens them up.”
That was the case for Audrey Thomas ’17, who is also part of LIFT’s student organizing team. “I realized the world isn’t always like where I grew up,” says the economics and women’s, gender and sexuality studies major. “The connection I made with my LIFT student gave me confidence in my ability to navigate other complex relationships in the future.”
Says Levin, a political economy major who will teach kindergarten at a charter school in St. Louis this fall, “LIFT definitely influenced my choice to become a teacher. Hearing how much most of the teens hated school was heartbreaking for me. I know that learning can be fun, and I know how powerful a positive school experience can be for a child.”
LIFT also taught Levin something else. “The program has given me a lot of faith in people and their ability to change and grow,” she says. “It has also been an incredible reminder that one mistake should not define a person.”
Incarcerated students “take pride in completing a Williams College course because it shows they can accomplish any task … this helps build their self-esteem and confidence.” Sheriff Thomas Bowler
Shortly before her childhood friend Mateek was released from prison, Nichols received a letter from him. “My intentions for now is education and gettin a better living condition and my first ever job,” he wrote. “I’m not the same person. … I use to live for the day. Now I’d like to get by for life.”
The letter is one of dozens that Nichols has saved over the years. “There is something about writing to a person behind bars that changes your perspective,” she says. “It is a constant reminder that not everyone is free, and that systematic injustice exists.”
That injustice, she says, is reflected by the fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any nation. The number ranges from 1.6 million people in state and federal prisons, according to the Department of Justice, to more than 2.3 million when local jails, juvenile detention centers and other facilities are counted, based on a report by the Prison Policy Initiative. Latinos and African Americans are disproportionately imprisoned, with the latter constituting 44 percent of people incarcerated in the U.S. According to the Brookings Institute, there’s a nearly 70 percent chance that an African-American man without a high school diploma will be imprisoned by his mid-30s.
Nichols says many young people in her Brooklyn neighborhood struggled in public school classrooms. She herself acted out for several years because she didn’t know how to deal with the abuse she’d suffered at the hands of a trusted adult.
“I got in trouble a lot and was in special education until ninth grade,” she says. “I could have easily ended up in prison if not for my mom, who constantly encouraged me to be my best self. She told me over and over that I didn’t have to be defined by my circumstances.”
In high school, Nichols focused on her goal of college and excelled academically. The experience fueled her desire to help those who hadn’t had the unwavering support she’d received. But how?
Thinking about her early exchanges with Mateek, the answer seemed clear. In the spring of her sophomore year, she started Converging Worlds. With co-chair Kiyana Hanley ’17, whose brother is in a mental health facility at Rikers Island, she began recruiting Williams students to write to inmates in New York State who were serving time for nonviolent offenses.
“We can learn so much from people on the inside,” says Nichols, who says the letter-writing process is a chance to “connect with someone who is not like you.”
The group started with two students in addition to Nichols and Hanley writing one to two letters per month. The co-chairs suggested topics to write about: sports, books and academic pursuits rather than personal information.
“Students found the experience eye-opening, because it forced them to reconsider their ideas about people who are marginalized,” Nichols says. “Once people are incarcerated, they become just numbers behind cell doors. They are no longer real people to the public.”
By 2014, the students were writing to people in several prisons throughout the Northeast, and the program had begun an annual book drive to help augment the libraries in those institutions. With funding from the college, the group brought to campus criminal justice activists Hector “Benny” Custodio, Theo Harris and Ernest Henry—formerly incarcerated, all of whom now have master’s degrees—as part of Claiming Williams day in 2015. The event drew more than 300 students.
Nichols says her interest in mass incarceration led her to Union Theological Seminary, and this summer she’s working with the New York City-based group Release Aging People in Prison. More than 9,000 people over the age of 50 are imprisoned statewide, and advocates say many of them have transformed their lives and could be released with no threat to public safety. The grassroots organizing and policy project also has chapters in Maryland and Washington, D.C.
Says Nichols, who plans to finish her master’s and then study law with the aim of addressing the inequities that underserved communities face, “When you challenge your ideas, it allows for a human connection, and that is one of the most fundamental needs we have.”
making a difference
At the last Inside-Out class of the year, McPartland and the students were joined by Sheriff Bowler and Alan Bianchi, the assistant deputy superintendent of the Berkshire County Sheriff ’s Office. Also present were Williams English professor Christian Thorne, who taught an Inside-Out course called Happiness, and Denise Buell, dean of the faculty and Cluett Professor of Religion.
Bowler presented each of the inside students with a diploma and reminded the men, who will soon be released from jail, that they can have a better life if they continue the good work they started inside.
The students reflected on the course and how it changed their expectations for the future. Jason, the inside student who served in Iraq, says he’ll go to a veterans’ treatment facility. He then hopes to take classes in information technology. John, who had taken college classes prior to his arrest, wants to sign up for more and will look for a job.
“They take pride in completing a Williams College course because it shows they can accomplish any task put before them,” Bowler says of the incarcerated students. “This helps build their self-esteem and confidence for any future endeavors.”
The Williams students, too, have learned important lessons.
“I used to think that all someone had to do to succeed is work hard and play by the rules,” says Jack Greenberg ’18, a political science major. “Some of these guys just can’t get past their childhood. They know they made the wrong choices, but they don’t know what the other choices were.”
Says Rebecca Lewis ’16, an economics major who will work at the Federal Reserve Bank in the fall, “Our classmates really want to do better, and they are quick to take responsibility for their actions. The course made me realize that I can and should take responsibility for the community I live in and ask what the specific need is and how I can make a difference.”
Elizabeth Lund is an award-winning magazine writer. She volunteered in a women’s prison for several years.