Discussions during this year’s Orientation Week frequently reflected back upon Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy. Many found themselves left in disbelief after learning about the pervasiveness of institutional abuses within our nation’s criminal justice system in this year’s required reading. Currently, one club on campus is trying to extend that conversation and foment it into practical action – and there’s a possibility you’ve never heard of it.

College Guild, founded in 2001, is a non-profit organization affiliated with both Bates College and Bowdoin College that provides free, unaccredited academic courses to prisoners throughout the country. The courses are unaccredited for a reason – many accredited courses are not available to prisoners in segregation or on death row.

Bates and Bowdoin students volunteer as “readers,” evaluating and reflecting upon the inmates’ work while providing them with words of encouragement. Course topics, which inmates successfully complete after finishing six units relating to the subject, range from science to Greek mythology to gardening.

Julie Zimmerman, co-founder of College Guild, sheds light on the organization. “Respect-based programs like CG are important because they have been shown over and over to reduce recidivism,” started Zimmerman. “They’re important because prisoners need something positive, productive, and encouraging to fill their time. They need to know that they are still human, and the feedback from College Guild volunteers conveys that message loud and clear.”

Decreasing recidivism is a principal aim of the organization – the College Guild motto, in fact, reads “Respect Reduces Recidivism.” According to the organization, participants in educational programs reduce their chances of returning to prison by 50 percent.

But the organization doesn’t start and end with Zimmerman – it needs volunteer readers to survive. “Getting involved is important for Bates’ students because they carry a new understanding of criminal justice with them for the rest of their lives. We learn from our CollegeGuild students as much as they learn from us.”

What’s more, Zimmerman stresses the enormous, material impact College Guild has had on its students in an effort to underscore the organization’s importance.

“College Guild has received hundreds and hundreds of letters  [from inmates] telling us what College Guild has meant to them. One student wrote to say he had to drop out because he had enrolled in college courses. He said the organization gave him the confidence to believe he could succeed in college. He ended with, ‘I owe you the entire world.’

Imagine reading letters which say, “You saved my life,” “You made me a better man,” “You’re the only one who believed in me.” There are no words to describe the feeling!”

I also spoke with Cristopher Hernandez Sifontes ’18, student co-president of College Guild at Bates, to discuss the engagement of the program with Bates Students.

“I joined College Guild in the winter of 2016 as part of a CEL requirement in Professor Cynthia Baker’s Human Suffering seminar. After visiting their offices and speaking to Julie Zimmerman, I was struck by the strength of the values and mission of the organization. I was determined that we should bring College Guild to Bates and encourage students here to play an active part in bringing about timely solutions to the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States.”

Sifontes remarks that “Every unit that I receive from a prisoner-student is remarkable in its own way. To read incarcerated individuals express themselves in relation to subjects of academic and personal importance is to develop an understanding of the equalizing power of education.”

One issue that faces the organization is the enormous demand for readers from prisoners nationwide.

“Joining College Guild is easy for students at Bates, but precisely because there is a shortage of volunteers it is not so easy for prisoners themselves – incarcerated individuals currently face a waitlist of about 3-4 months before they can join.” As a result, Sifontes also stressed the importance of Bates students joining the initiative.

“College Guild provides Bates students with an incredible flexible way to give back to a broad community in a tangibly significant way. Volunteers meet with me for a 15-minute orientation and start receiving scanned responses from prisoners around the United States. Volunteers then use the existing units to provide focused, constructive feedback to students.”

For more information about College Guild, visit http://collegeguild.org/.