Unsung Hero: Julie Zimmerman, bringing light to prisoners

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“A Pelican”

Brown and ugly I am told

But my reflection off the

Sea waters

As I dive and swoop

Tells me you are blind

— Johnny S.

BRUNSWICK — “Johnny S.” wrote this poem from jail.

He is one of 450 prisoners from around the country taking free correspondence courses from College Guild, a Brunswick-based non-profit organization co-founded by Julie Zimmerman in 2001.

Fifteen years ago, Zimmerman was running a small publishing company (Biddle Publishing) and a self-publishing co-op (Audenreed Press), when she got a collect call from a death-row prisoner named A.J. Banister. He had appeared in a book about the death penalty, “Dead End,” that Julie’s firm had published and he wanted to help her promote it.

“That call,” Zimmerman said, “changed my life.”

Julie became friends with the prisoner and helped him publish his own book, “Shellsucker Death.”

Zimmerman’s career in publishing began with her own book, “Chronic Back Pain: Moving On.” Her debilitating condition forced her to leave her previous work as a physical therapist, and combined with some additional health issues, made it increasingly difficult for her to walk or stand for long; she also had to stop driving.

One day a friend was driving Zimmerman to the Maine State Prison in Thomaston so that Julie could meet with one of her prisoner friends. The friend, who taught at a youth center, was describing how difficult it was to teach in that environment because of the rigid regulations and inconsistent schedules.

Zimmerman said she suggested that prisoners should have the opportunity to take a correspondence course.

“My friend gave me this look,” she recalled, “and by the time we’d returned home we had the plan mapped out.

“We wanted the courses to be creative, but not accredited,” Zimmerman explained. “We wanted prisoners to think outside the cell, beyond prison politics or the next prison fight. Most important, we wanted prisoners to feel respected and valued.

“They don’t feel respect from the prison administration, from other prisoners and, in many cases, even their families,” she said. “We wanted to say to prisoners: ‘Here’s a stranger who wants to spend time reading what you have to say.’”

Zimmerman sold the publishing companies, and started College Guild in 2001 with a strong, three-word mission: “Respect Reduces Recidivism.”

Today, College Guild offers more than 20 correspondence courses – topics like Logic and Puzzles, Exercise and Relaxation, Short Story Club, Greek Mythology, and Families – to 450 prisoners around the country. A teacher leads each course; readers often assist with reading and with writing commentaries on the work of the students. Everyone – prisoners, teachers and readers – corresponds on a first-name-only basis.

One paid employee oversees the day-to-day operation of the College Guild office. All teachers and readers contribute their time and input without compensation. Private contributions and small foundation grants cover the budget of around $30,000 per year.

Powerful word of mouth, compelling results and a reference to College Guild in the June, 2011, issue of Playboy magazine have created an overflow of prisoners wanting to enroll in College Guild courses.

About 200 prisoners are on the waiting list, not surprising since the College Guild is the only program in the country offering free correspondence courses for prisoners.

Zimmerman said she and the 40 volunteers who assist as teachers or readers derive satisfaction from knowing that they’re lifting the lives of prisoners. A stream of thank-you notes pours into the College Guild office throughout the year.

These are some of the thoughts they share:

“There are so many voids in prison, and it is beautiful to be able to fill these voids with some knowledge.”

“When people see me working on my assignments they always ask me what kind of ‘credit’ I’m getting for doing it. My reply is always, ‘I’m bettering myself.”

“Your words are always welcomed, and I even tried to tone down the violent actions in this unit.”

“Never again will I need drugs or alcohol to be my recreation, my escape from life’s drudgeries.”

Sidebar Elements

Julie Zimmerman reads a letter from a prison inmate participating in College Guild, the Brunswick-based nonprofit she started that educates and supports 450 inmates across the nation.

Unsung Heroes

One in a series of profiles by Brunswick writer David Treadwell about people who quietly contribute to the quality of life in greater Portland. Do you know an Unsung Hero? Tell us: heroes@theforecaster.net.