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When a Student Couldn’t Pay Tuition Fees, Prison Inmates Rallied to Raise $32k to Help

Palma School

By Judy Cole  - Jan 20, 2021

In the prison system, crime and punishment go hand in hand. Rehabilitation—while often cited as a goal of correctional facilities—is usually more elusive. But, maybe if you add a book club to the mi

Not long ago, inmates at California’s Soledad Prison pooled their resources—earned over the course of three years—and actually paid the $32,000 tuition so that a student in need could stay in school.

The gesture was the culmination of a process set in motion by Jim Micheletti, an English and theology teacher/director of campus ministry and admissions assistant Mia Mirassou at the Palma School in Salinas.

Seven years ago, when the pair launched the Exercises in Empathy reading program at Soledad, they could not foresee the cascade of positive repercussions that would follow, nor envision how sowing a seed of change would eventually come full circle.

In the program, Palma students, faculty, and community members met regularly inside the prison to discuss books with inmates. More than a simple exchange of ideas, it became an opportunity to modify students’ preconceived perceptions and offered prisoners a chance to step outside of stereotypes.

“They go in thinking ‘monster,’ and they come out thinking ‘a man, a human being.’ They’ve done bad things, but there are no throwaway people here,” Micheletti told CNN.

In 2016, one reading club selection, Miracle On The River Kwai by Ernest Gordon was the perfect book to change lives. The story chronicles the transformation of a group of prisoners of war from a mindset of ‘survival of the fittest’ to one of solidarity with one another and self-sacrifice.

Jason Bryant, who was serving a 26-year sentence for his part in an armed robbery, finished reading the book and was so inspired by the story, that he and fellow-inmate Ted Gray set out to emulate the book’s example: “A small group of men made a different decision, and they decide to look out for each other.”

Bryant and Gray also decided to channel their energy into creating a scholarship fund for a deserving Palma student. Sophomore Sy Newson Green, whose parents had both lost their jobs due to health issues, was chosen as the recipient.

For the next three years, Bryant and Gray worked behind prison walls gathering donations to finance Green’s education.

Green, now 19, graduated Palma last year and is currently a student at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University.

Bryant was granted clemency after serving 20 years, and now serves as the Director of Restorative Programs at CROP, a nonprofit that focuses on reducing the recidivism rate via training, career development, and stable housing.

In a system where so many inmates are locked into a cycle of crime and punishment, Bryant found the key to lasting change began with helping others. He embraces his second chance with a full heart.