Getting Booked

By the

November 17, 2005

Georgetown students have been going to jail every week for more than 20 years. However, they are not being held for open containers. The volunteers of Georgetown Prison Outreach work with inmates to help them pass their GED high-school equivalency exam, raise their English proficiency skills and most importantly, give them confidence and hope.

“They are shining light in those dark cells,”Jennifer Gainsborough of Penal Reform International said.


The tutors lined up diligently outside the glass-enclosed room where they would teach English to the maximum security inmates, according to Brodie Parent (CAS ‘07). Before the volunteers headed into the room, the deputy gave them a stern warning.

“Don’t be manipulated by these guys,” he said. “They’re the rapists and the murderers of this jail.”

The tutors, some noticeably shaken, walked in to begin their first night of tutoring on this September night at the Arlington County Detention Facility.

In January 1984, the Prison Outreach Program was born after an inmate at a D.C. prison wrote letters to universities requesting that educational programs be brought to the jail. Of all the schools contacted, only Georgetown University agreed to participate, through the efforts of the program’s first faculty advisor, English Professor Patricia O’Connor. They originally tutored at the Lorton Prison in Arlington, Virg., but when the dilapitated and overcrowded facility finally closed its doors, they moved the program to the Arlington County Detention Facility in Rosslyn.

Georgetown’s Center for Social Justice offers a plethora of service opportunities and tutoring programs, but the popularity and longevity of the Prison Outreach program shows that students are interested in tutoring not just children and immigrants, but also the incarcerated. They choose Prison Outreach for specific reasons.

“Prisoners are the most forgotten and the most likely to be dehumanized,” Pilar Siman (SFS ‘07), a former student coordinator, said. “I really feel like I’m making a difference because I’m teaching them skills that can help them in life.”

The tutors break up into groups to go three nights a week, with Monday and Wednesday devoted to training for the math portion of the GED high school equivalency exam, and Thursday to English tutoring for non-native-English-speaking maximum security inmates.

“It was the first time he’d seen stuff like algebra and he was only a year older than I was,” Parent said of one inmate. “He didn’t know what ‘x’ was,” he added, crossing his arms to form the symbol.

For some, Prison Outreach helps to reverse some of the contradictions of the country’s prison system.

“I have been interested in our criminal justice system since high school,” Amelia Post (SFS ‘07) said. “Tutoring seemed like the best way to make prison time into something that’s rehabilitating rather than punishing.”


The program’s success is evident in the numbers. A significant percentage of inmates are passing the GED and more tutors are returning for another semester.

Half of the inmates passed the GED this semester, which is consistent with the 50 percent average pass rate from years past, according to William Richey, educational coordinator at the jail, and a retired Foreign Service officer of the United States Information Agency. On the tutoring side, two thirds of tutors are coming back for another semester of Prison Outreach, according to Chana Sacks (CAS ‘07), this year’s student coordinator.

“This is a program where people come back,” Sacks said.

Beyond the numbers, though, is the personal satisfaction that both the tutors and the inmates feel when they reach their goal.

“He walked by me with the biggest grin and gave me a huge thumbs up,” Sacks said of her inmate of last semester. “It was an amazing feeling.”

Though progress in the ESL program is not as easy to quantify, learning to speak English has increased inmates’ confidence and enabled them to advocate for themselves.

“When I taught him how to say that he needed glasses, he was on his way to fulfilling one of his basic needs,” Pilar Siman (SFS ‘07) said. “He just didn’t know how to articulate that before.”

Working with the inmates also helps the tutors to realize what they may take for granted. At ACDF, the prisoners only see the sky behind thick glass or plexiglass: They are confined indoors.

“The wind was so strong during the hurricane that they could feel the breeze through the walls,” Post said. “My inmate was so grateful to have breathed any amount of fresh air.”

The tutors and their students often develop strong relationships, but first they have to work past an awkward introductory period caused by their different backgrounds.


When Brodie Parent first saw his inmate Clarke, he wondered what this seemingly eight-foot tall black man with an impressive afro would think of him, a private-school educated, Arizona native with kind eyes, but white skin.

“My biggest fear was that he would think I was this entitled little white kid,” Parent said.

Since most of the tutors are white and most of the inmates are black or Hispanic, a certain tension exists.

“I’m sure it sets up a barrier when I’m a 20-year-old white woman tutoring a 50-year-old Latino man,” Sacks said.

Though the difference in skin color may be difficult to overcome at first, the tutors and inmates seem to move past flash judgements quickly.

“I realized that all he wanted was some interaction,” Parent said. “He was instantly my best friend just after saying hi.”


In addition to racial tension, tutors face the reality that they are a group of mostly women entering a jail of mostly lonely men. This semester, 24 out of 36 of the tutors of the Prison Outreach are female. According to Sacks, women make up only 10 percent of the population at the jail.

In the history of the program, there have never been any significant incidents of harassment or impropriety between tutors and inmates. However, the tutors have had to deal with love notes, rumors of crushes and appraising looks from the men.

“When he said ‘your fingers are so pretty,’I knew my inmate was getting too comfortable,” Siman said. “I quickly told him that we had to get back to math.”

“The inmates have never been in anything but a romantic relationship with women,” O’Connor said. “They have to learn what it’s like to have an appropriate educational relationship.”

Inmates are not the only ones who cross the line, however. During training, tutors were told about a girl who signed up to volunteer so that she could tutor her boyfriend, an inmate. This was not a Georgetown student, but there was an incident here where a tutor conducted herself inappropriately and was asked to leave the program, according to O’Connor. Over the years, tutors have been caught depositing money into bank accounts for their inmate or calling an inmate’s family.

“You try to develop a personal relationship. You don’t want to put up barriers, but it can get confusing,” Post said. “They offer, ‘Can I take you out for a drink when I get out,’ out of real gratitude, but you know that you just can’t.”


A rigorous training and policy guide demands that the tutors maintain a professional distance from their students. Before a volunteer can begin tutoring, he or she must undergo hours of training on the rules and regulations of the jail. A stringent dress code is enforced at all times?jeans, skirts and sleeveless or low-cut shirts are all banned during their trips to the jail. It is prohibited to bring anything in or out?even retractable pens, stapled packets or something as harmless as Halloween candy is prohibited.

“My inmate’s wife had a baby and I wanted to get him a cigar or something, ” Parent said. “They just wouldn’t bend the rules, though.”

The extensive rules can be a hassle, but tutors understand that it is not only in their own best interest, but that of the inmates.

According to information from Post’s inmate, one inmate recently used a toothbrush to commit suicide. This helped her understand that though the rules might seem excessive, they serve an important role.

“I never realized that something as harmless as a toothbrush could be used as a weapon,” Post said. “When I heard about the two inmates that had committed suicide, it really hit home for me that the rules are in place for a reason.”


The biggest obstacle the tutors face is not race relations or sexual tension, but the sprawling jail bureaucracy. On a regular basis, the tutors must deal with fire drill evacuations, too many inmates, too few inmates or a missing deputy.

Before the tutors even see the inmates, they must sign in three times. When there is no deputy, the tutors begin late or must come back the next week. At times, there are not enough deputies to supervise the tutors and they must leave.

Because there are currently no long-term facilities in D.C., the inmates have only a limited amount of time to develop their skill-set. After this stay, they are shipped off to facilities across the country where they may never get the same opportunity to get one-on-one help.

“The prisoners are people coming from backgrounds where they haven’t been educated in a long time,” Richey said. “They are only there 45 months, so there isn’t a ton of time to prepare them.”

Just to get into the jail, one has to perform a background check and then get approval for entry. I have been trying to observe tutoring at the jail since being assigned this story almost a month ago. However, by the time of publication, my request had still not been processed.

“The unpredictability and bureaucracy of the jail are a problem for us,” Sacks said. “However, it shows the dedication of our tutors because they are willing to withstand the setbacks and keep coming back.”

Prison Outreach is considered a success on the hilltop as well. Through regular on-campus Prison Awareness initiatives, the group has provoked discussion on issues facing the criminal justice system in the country.

Over 50 students, including many who weren’t involved with Prison Outreach at all, attended a Prisoners Abuse panel last week. The information allowed people there to come to certain realizations about the flawed criminal justice system.

“Isn’t it wrong for prisons to be owned by private companies?” a student in the audience asked during the question and answer portion of the program, his incredulous tone of voice revealing his na??vete.

“The prison awareness dimension of our project is crucial,” Faculty Advisor Jennifer Fink, a professor of English, said. “It helps us think through connections, deepening and extending our thinking on our individual tutoring experiences.”

While there are classes and tutoring services at many prisons, they are usually not taught by a group of undergraduate volunteers.

“I’ve never heard of a group of college kids coming in to tutor for free,” Federal Prison Guard Michael Buckley said.

Fink aptly summarized the contribution that this group of students is making.

“By showing up, night after night, year after year, these students are transforming the lives of these prisoners???and possibly their own, too.”

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