BRUNSWICK — In her small suite behind a medical office on Harpswell Road, Pat Friedman organizes stacks of thank-you letters she has received from prison inmates.
“I would like to thank you personally for your generosity because as someone incarcerated, you have helped improve my life,” wrote a prisoner named David R. “I truly hope you understand the immensity of that statement.”
Friedman, administrator of the nonprofit College Guild, said the letters land on her desk every day.
“We get reams of letters saying ‘I have no other opportunity for education’ … there are just hundreds of individuals out there,” Friedman said in a recent interview.
College Guild is the only free, non-accredited provider of inmate education in the country, according to Friedman.
Because College Guild is unaccredited, it can offer courses like creative writing or marine biology to all prisoners, regardless of their crime, sentence, or where they’re incarcerated, no questions asked.
Friedman said that makes her organization unique.
“The people who need education most are the ones excluded from it,” she said.
And at a time when many eyes in the nation are turned toward prison reform, Friedman believes College Guild’s singular history and mission position it perfectly to take its message to a larger audience.
Many inmates are barred from traditional prison education programs, depending on their circumstances or the severity of their sentence.
College Guild, however, offers its courses to any prisoner who seeks out the program.
Friedman cited the example of inmates in solitary confinement, or “administrative segregation,” who are often not eligible for local education programs.
One student, a prisoner named Logan D., wrote in a College Guild newsletter that “as an Administrative Segregation prisoner in Texas, I spend 24 hours/day, 7 days/week, in a stark 9′ by 5′ cell, the walls of which must be kept free of any decoration.”
“I have gradually been left in an ocean of isolation with the sharks of insanity circling about,” he said.
According to Logan, it was his first College Guild assignment, for a Greek Mythology course delivered by mail, that kept him from “drowning.”
“College Guild has helped me keep afloat,” he wrote. “I will be calling on that stability as I face release.”
Since its founding in 2001, the small agency has grown to include a network of 130 volunteers as far away as Australia, 400 enrolled students, and a wait-list that consistently hovers around 500, according to Friedman.
Friedman was hired six months ago to help whittle that list down and increase funding for the organization.
“We’ve taken 300 students off of the wait-list in the past six months,” she said. “(It’s) an incredibly well-oiled machine, all coming through this little office in Brunswick.”
Friedman said she has fully thrown herself into the new role.
“I can’t express enough … how meticulously these students write, how seriously they take the subject matter, how broadly their horizons expand,” she said. “Under seemingly impossible circumstances, they find laughter and new hope.”
The core mission, Friedman said, is “respect reduces recidivism,” or the likelihood a former inmate will return to prison again after release. “I think education is the first step toward rehabilitation,” she added.
Larry Lehna is a College Guild success story.
“College Guild pretty much saved me,” he said in an interview Wednesday.
Lehna, who spent 11 years at Michigan’s Marquette Branch Prison for an attempted aggravated assault, said College Guild came to him at a critical point in his life.
Writing for the organization’s newsletter, he described “humiliation, degradation, and outright bullying” from prison guards. “I was close to a breaking point,” he wrote. “I was ready to give them a (good reason) for treating me badly.”
But he signed up for the newly formed College Guild, and received his first unit.
“I became so engrossed that the cacophony that is a cell block would, at times, fade away for hours at a time,” he wrote. “When my next unit arrived, there were also pages of commentary … someone had not only taken the time to read my thoughts; they had responded as if my work was relevant.”
“They addressed me with respect,” he wrote.
Lehna was released from Marquette in 2009.
“When I got out I didn’t know what to do,” he said Wednesday. He said he was almost kicked out of his half-way home, but found a job with two days to spare.
Based on advice from a friend, he applied for and received a Pell Grant to attend Oakland Community College. He took four semesters consecutively and graduated with a perfect 4.0 grade point average.
Then he kept going. Lehna said he was driven by a motivation to prove something to himself, and not just exist to pass the time like he did in prison.
“I was disappointed in myself, I let myself down and my family down … I screwed up so bad it cost me 11 years of my life,” he said. But he found purpose in writing.
“My specialty was writing and journalism classes,” he said. After starting at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, he began winning writing awards.
He won first place in a Writing for the Public Sphere award. “I spent a night in a homeless shelter to get the story right,” he said. “What I didn’t mention in the story was I was two days away from staying there one time.”
Lehna graduated from UMD at the top of his class, with a Chancellor’s Medallion, the school’s most prestigious academic honor for students.
He has written for the Metro Times in Detroit, sold an essay to Norton Publishing for a writing textbook, and is working on a book about his life, he said.
He also said he regularly stays in touch with Julie Zimmerman, College Guild’s co-founder.
“If I ever hit the lottery, (College Guild) won’t want for nothing – that’s how much they meant for me,” he said.
As for prison, Lehna said, “I feel a million miles away from it.”
Friedman hinted recently that College Guild’s goal is to expand its operations even more.
“I look at the papers every day, and every day I see something new from the executive branch, or the judicial branch, saying there needs to be (prison) reform,” she said. “Just the other day President Obama called our prison system a ‘shame in front of the world.'”
According to the 2010 census, the U.S. had 2.3 million prisoners, more than any other country.
“The scales are falling from our eyes,” Friedman said. “We’re starting to say this isn’t O.K. All these people made a mistake, all are being punished for it. But we’ve seen prisoners respond so positively at the chance to better themselves … shouldn’t that be at the heart of corrections?”
She said College Guild is beginning an outreach campaign to try to communicate its work to the Obama administration, and to look into new federal grants for prisoner education.
She said those stacks of letters and testimony, and the stories like Larry Lehna’s, are ready to be part of the national conversation.
“(We’re) poised to strike while the iron is hot,” she said.
College Guild Administrator Pat Friedman sorts thank-you letters from prison inmates in her Brunswick office on July 20. Behind her are two canvases painted by Osei Cotton, a College Guild student.
Many College Guild students cite their coursework as their only creative outlet in prison. A prisoner at the Arrowhead Correctional Center in Colorado sketched an owl onto the envelope he used to send in his work.