Palma School and Soledad State Prison have been working together the past seven years for an enriching yet unlikely activity: a reading program.
Students from the elite prep school for boys in Salinas, California, and inmates from the Correctional Training Facility (CTF) in Soledad, California, formed a reading group to exchange valuable knowledge and learn more about each other.
But aside from accomplishing these primary objectives, what makes this project even more remarkable is the bond formed between the two groups. Through their discussions, the students and inmates develop a greater understanding of each other and empathy towards one another.
When one student struggled to pay for the $1,200 monthly tuition at the school, the men stepped up to help him afford it. They ended up raising $30,000 for the teen!
Jim Michelleti, an English and Theology teacher who created the reading program, said he couldn’t believe it at first when the inmates told him about their plan.
“They said, ‘We value you guys coming in. We’d like to do something for your school … can you find us a student on campus who needs some money to attend Palma?” he recalled.
The inmates—also known as the “brothers in blue”—raised over $30,000 from inside the facility to support Sy Green with his schooling.
Jason Bryant, a former inmate who was instrumental in launching the scholarship, said the men were “eager to do it.”
“Regardless of the poor choices that people make, most people want to take part in something good,” he said.
Jason served a 20-year sentence for committing armed robberies. One of his victims was fatally shot by an accomplice.
While inside the state prison, Jason did everything he could to turn his life around. He even earned a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees. He also started leadership training programs for inmates.
“I’m never far from the reality that I committed a crime in 1999 that devastated a family — several families — and irreparably harmed my community,” he said.
“I keep that close to my heart, and I would hope that people can identify the power of forgiveness and the probability of restoration when people put belief in each other.”
His sentence was reduced in March for his contributions in restorative work during his time in prison. Now, he works as the Director for Restorative Work at an organization called Creating Restorative Opportunities and Programs (CROP).
The group helps equip formerly imprisoned individuals with skills training and stable housing so they can successfully reintegrate into their communities.
Inside the prison, Jason had reconnected with his old crime partner, Ted Gray, who came up with the scholarship idea. When the incarcerated men learned of this, hundreds of them jumped at the opportunity to participate.
The minimum wage in prison can be as low as $0.08 per hour, which means it took a whole lot for the inmates to raise $30,000. One can work all day and only make a dollar inside the prison. Some brothers in blue who had no money to donate sold their possessions or food so they can contribute.
One inmate named Reggie even donated his entire monthly salary of $100 to the program.
“I get paid to do what I do, so, why not pay it forward and give it to someone else for a change?” he told CNN.
The men didn’t get to choose who got their scholarship, but they know Sy Green was a deserving recipient.
Sy used to go to a public school, but it had problems with drugs, gangs, and fighting, so his parents transferred him to Palma School.
However, six months later, they struggled financially after his father, Frank Green needed heart surgery and became unfit to work. They were on the brink of being unable to pay for Sy’s schooling.
Thankfully, help came in the form of $30,000 from complete strangers inside the correctional facility.
“It brought me to tears,” Frank said. “At that particular time, it was a truly a blessing. It was unheard of.”
Aside from participating in the reading program, Sy and his family started visiting the prison to build relationships with the inmates. Four former inmates even attended his high school graduation!
Now, he is attending The Academy of Art University in San Francisco, taking up sports broadcasting and playing basketball.
Sy plans to continue visiting the inmates during his breaks from college.
“That’s only the right thing to do. Beyond the scholarship, the knowledge that they pour into you, that’s, that’s the best thing,” he said. “They definitely take my future serious and they genuinely do care about me as a person.”
Being involved in something greater than themselves has allowed the inmates to become role models – something that most of them never thought they’d be.
“I don’t feel like myself or my team or the guys who contributed to this incredible gift for Sy are special. We’re just people who want to do good things,” Jason said. “If more people just decided to do good things, this world would be a better place.”
The reading program is now being held via Zoom because of the pandemic, and the inmates are already saving up for the next recipient of their scholarship. Sometimes, all that people need is an opportunity to be better, and these men have found a way to make use of theirs the best way they can.