Founded by Mia Mirassou and Jim Micheletti, a book club called “Exercises In Empathy” allows students from Palma School in Salinas, California to gather and read with inmates at Soledad State Prison.
The program, which has been running for 7 years, helps students gain a new perspective on incarcerated men.
Speaking to CBS News, Jim Micheletti said, “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.”
Jason Bryant, a former inmate who took part in the program stated, “It was incredibly refreshing to have young men come into a space with us and see us as what we are, which is people.”
In 1999 at the age of 20, Bryant was sentenced to 26 years to life for his participation in a robbery that resulted in a gun death.
When Bryant read “Miracle On The River Kwai” at the book club, he was inspired by how the book illustrated prisoners of war sacrificing for one another. He therefore gathered with another inmate Ted Gray and together they planned how they would work with the other inmates to help a student in need from Palma School.
Despite the base salary for inmates in the state of California being eight cents an hour, 800 inmates at Soledad State Prison were able to raise $32,000 for a scholarship fund. This took three years. They did this by sweeping, clerking and making furniture.
James Bryant said, “Incarcerated people were so drawn to … the idea of going a mile deep in a young man’s life, that they were giving up their month’s pay to contribute.”
Having a student who’s father had a recent heart transplant and a mother who lost her vision in an accident, Mia Mirassou and Jim Micheletti decided that the scholarship should go to a young man called Sy Green.
Speaking of his parents’ situations Green said, “That was a financial burden, with all the medical bills and stuff.”
The scholarship enabled him to continue studying at his private school.
Green was so grateful that inmates, who he had never met before, had sacrificed their own wages so he could pay his tuition.
“I was mind-blown. … And then immediately, I was just grateful,” Green said.
Graduating from Palma School last year 2020, Sy Green is now a 19-year-old college student. He said, “They put all this effort and all this work into me. So I have to honour that and carry that legacy on.”
After 20 years in prison, James Bryant was granted clemency. He is now the Director of Restorative Programs at a nonprofit organisation called CROP. The organisation aims to reduce the rate of recidivism (the tendency for a convicted criminal to reoffend) through training, career development and stable housing. James Bryant also wants to continue mentoring students like Green. He stated, “I don’t know about redemption. … I can say this, I know that those of us who have truly transformed our lives are committed to adding value in any way that we possibly can.”