College Guild: Respect Reduces Recidivism But What is Respect in Prison?

I am all for anything that will improve the life of an inmate no matter their crime. This is for purely selfish reasons, believe it or not. Do even the tiniest bit of research and you find that improving the conditions in prison drastically cuts crime rates on the outside. It is one of the biggest reasons that crime is so high in this country as compared to other places. We cant seem to get our fat, American heads around the concept that prison must be a place of rehabilitation and not a money-making venture. Our politicians have a strong hold on the weakest of minds and keep feeding them false information and statistics to gain popular support for this farce despite the rising crime rates.

The few enlightened folks who attempt to do something about it are usually vilified by the village idiots who are happily drinking the Kool-aid from the prison powers that be. Because of this, I hate to knock any organization for trying but sometimes it seems things just haven't been all the way thought through. I had one such experience with College Guild.

College Guild is a free nontraditional correspondence college for inmates. From their website:

Our mission is to stimulate in prisoners an interest in life long learning by providing a selection of free, non-traditional correspondence courses. College Guild is not affiliated with any religious or political group. Our courses are designed to be both thought provoking and fun while encouraging objectivity and creativity. They relieve the boredom of prison life with an opportunity to spend time constructively. For many inmates, our courses are the only contact they have beyond the prison walls.

I first found them 5 or 6 years ago and was ecstatic to help. I signed up to be a teacher with high hopes of using my advanced degrees for something so worthwhile. There are courses in arts, dogs, poetry, justice, drawing, mythology and more. I was immediately saddened however when I heard from the director who told me we dont really teach anything. The students get the information to study and are given a test. Readers receive those tests and are instructed to only give positive feedback. Regardless of the responses from the inmate.

I tried to understand this. They say right on their website that the purpose is no to actually receive a credit but to stimulate a lifelong love of learning. I was confused how to impart this without actually teaching. College guild does not allow readers to talk about their own experiences or lives in relation to the course for fear of a relationship developing although no last names or addresses are even exchanged.

While I admire the effort of College Guild I had to stop volunteering when I received a test from an inmate that was full of racial hate and obvious historical misinformation. I stared at it for so long before I answered, knowing full well that I wasn't allowed to do anything but play along. College Guild advises to write "not suitable for college guild" near anything sexual or violent etc but I find that response sadly lacking both morally and civically.

I really wanted to open up a dialogue with this guy who was either an asshole trying to bait me and dillydally away his opportunity to learn something, however small, or a really confused person who had no clue his thinking was askew. I did correct his ideas to a degree, nothing confrontational, but once I sent it to College Guild, they never sent me another page to grade. I was kind of glad. I didn't feel like I was helping by letting bad behavior slide and obvious misinformation stand in the hopes that he would develop a love of learning. That isn't respect in my book. In fact, its quite the opposite.

Don't get me wrong. College Guild is a wonderful opportunity and it makes a difference for a lot of inmates. I did not find it was for me and I kept looking for a program to make a difference in the way I think is most helpful.

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