Volunteer Spotlight: SOphia ANGELIS

Sophia Angelis, a graduate of Harvard college, volunteered as a TA for a college course on Early American History that was taught at MCI Norfolk during the fall of 2016.  This opportunity was made possible through the Petey Greene Program’s partnership with the Boston University Prison Education Program. 

 

What’s your background, and what drew you to volunteer with the Petey Greene Program?

I graduated from Harvard a couple years ago, where I studied History and Literature, feeling unsure of what I wanted to do professionally. I went to work at a non-profit architecture firm but cared about prison issues, especially because I (like many others) have become aware of disparities that make me feel uncomfortable with the prison system. I started to volunteer for the Jobs Not Jails campaign (a local movement to reduce incarceration in Massachusetts) and I volunteered with my church on our mass incarceration working group. 

After being involved in that way for a couple years, I came to a point where I felt I couldn’t be effective working on prison issues without becoming more proximate to the issue. I was reading a ton about the topic, checking out books from the library, going to lectures, but that wasn’t going to get me what I needed to be an effective advocate. I felt that I needed direct experience, and also that, if I were to become serious about being an advocate for prison reform and education, I needed a personal testimony. One thing I’ve learned by attending church is the importance of testimony, to be able to speak to an experience that has transformational power, where you are one thing before it and something else after. I started to feel like I needed a testimony for myself, both as an honest motivation for being involved in prison issues other than being intellectually interested, and also to share with others. Volunteering with Petey Greene has begun to provide me with these things, and it’s felt like an incredible privilege to receive their help to be able to tutor inside.

 

What was your role in the prison?

I was a TA for an early American History Course, once a week on Tuesday evenings. Outside of class hours I did research for the students, because they were extremely limited in terms of materials and resources they could access. So, I helped the students find sources that were related to the papers they wanted to write.

 

How was your experience different from your expectations?

Prior to going into the prison I had tried to educate myself a lot, and most of what I’d read described the prison population in terms of its prevalence of people with mental health disorders, people of color, people from low income backgrounds, people who didn’t have access to education, and young men. Those are all groups which I don’t identify with, and I worried that I wouldn’t have anything over which to relate to the students in the class. 

That perspective changed immediately. I found myself sitting in a classroom filled with people who share my love of learning and my interest in history, a curiosity and fascination about why and how things happen in the world now, and the desire to have the skills to be able to figure that out. This was a really profound connection, and it was transformative to realize how much I have in common with the people in this class, and humbling to recall that I’d ever expected differently. 

The BU program in which I taught is selective, so there is certainly the fact that the people in the classroom might not be “representative” of the prison population—but rethinking that idea itself was one of the biggest lessons I learned while tutoring with Petey Greene. What does it mean to be representative of the prison population?  The prison population is incredibly diverse, demographically, but also personally—lots of different people with different strengths and personalities are incarcerated. I am glad I don’t have the presumption anymore that people who are in prison would necessarily have anything in common other than that we make their experience common when we send them to prison.

 

How has being in this classroom compared to other classrooms you’ve been in in the past?

There are obvious disadvantages that are frustrating. The library is limited, there is no access to internet, and I don’t know to what extent the community of people who are all going through the educational experience together gets to exist outside of the classroom.

However, there are incredible advantages that classroom offers over other classrooms I’ve been in. There is incredible diversity in terms of age and religious identity. There’s also the most diversity in terms of race that I’ve ever experienced in a classroom, which is relevant to a course on American history, when so much of what we discuss is about race and its role in our nation’s development. Classroom discussion was far more illuminating than many of the classrooms that I had in college because of the diversity of perspectives it provided and the level of comfort students had in bringing personal experience into the conversation.

 

Did you have any realizations that have been hard to describe to people who haven’t worked in this context?

What is most difficult to communicate is the quality of the students. The classroom environment is rigorous, because the students are creative, persuasive, respectful of each other, brilliant, and engaged. I was surprised to find this, and my reaction has forced me to confront my own prejudice, that people in prison have less to contribute to society than people on the ‘outside.’ I find that people I talk to about this class share my surprise. It makes me feel that we’ve together forgotten that people who are in prison are not essentially the disadvantages they have or the crime they committed, but are also people with amazing capacities. 

It’s frustrating because this should be so obvious to all of us: of course, just because somebody gets sent to prison doesn’t mean that they don’t have talents for self-expression or compassion or critical thinking. The most significant thing this experience taught me is that people in prison have incredible value. It’s so obvious that to admit it was a realization is embarrassing. 

I now feel that this has to be a message that I, and others who volunteer or work with incarcerated people, have to spread. It’s important to spread that message because, as long as we treat people in prison like they don’t have value, it’ll be easy to keep locking them up and keeping them inside, while their families and communities are deprived of the skills and character they have to offer. It’s also important because denying the value of incarcerated people is degrading and stigmatizing. During one classroom discussion this semester, a brilliant guy in the class spoke about the effects of abasement, related to another topic raised in the class. He said, being abased cultivates intense feelings of shame, and those feelings of shame breed terrible things, like violence and hate and resentment. I think about how we do that to people in prison.
 


How do you think this kind of volunteering program values people in prison as students?

For me, it is not so much about what we bring to the prison, so much as it is about opening up a space where people are able to be free to realize their capacities, develop their talents, and be valuable to other students. The radical thought behind Petey Greene and other prison education programs is to create an environment that affirms the value and potential of the people in it in the midst of a context that denies exactly these things, with the hope that this environment can disperse outside of the classroom and affect the whole prison.

All of us [the Petey Greene volunteers] talked about how powerful that classroom is and what an important space it is. Creating those spaces for people is so essential.

 

Were there any important moments in the classroom that stand out to you?

There were moments of respectful disagreement over religion or privilege. The professor would challenge people, but allow himself to be challenged as well, and the times he would concede to a student were amazing. Those engagements were empowering and dignifying. As were the moments when he would not concede. Those moments were still so respectful, and all of those moments are the ones that stick with me.

 

Can you talk about what you’ve taken away from this experience? 

The class I TA’d was on early American history, and covered the extermination of Native Americans tribes, the arrival of the first African slaves on U.S. soil, the establishment of the color line prohibition of interracial marriage, creation of race laws, and the expansion of slavery across the entire American South.

Over the course of this history, millions of people were killed and brutalized, and we’re starting to talk again, nationally, about how the legacies of that history haven’t ended, and continue to victimize people today. Some of the people who are victims of that history are in my classroom—the descendants of enslaved Africans and Native Americans—and are, I imagine, wildly overrepresented in prison classrooms around the country.

It has made me question, not whether the people in that classroom have done something wrong and must atone for it, but whether our country can pretend to be a purveyor of justice when we ourselves have never atoned or reconciled with the terrible things we’ve done in the past. It’s a question of who gets held accountable: I can’t help but have the feeling when I’m sitting in that classroom that for hundreds of years, millions of people in our country have done terrible things (owned slaves, terrorized African Americans, taken land from Native Americans) and not been held accountable, and that, somehow,  our sense of duty to punish people for wrongdoing has somehow all landed on the 25 people who are sitting in that class in front of me. It feels very arbitrary. 

 

How will this experience shape your future endeavors?

One of the things that has been so important for me about this experience has been to feel empowered to get involved in the prison reform movement. I feel like I have the testimony that will sustain me in starting that work. After a few months with Petey Greene I started working with Prisoner Legal Services of Massachusetts, and I am now looking forward to making this issue what I do professionally with the rest of my life.

The great thing about Petey Greene is that it’s not about giving you the experience of being able to change terrible things, but of realizing how valuable you can be to other people even if they come from different backgrounds, and how much those people matter. They matter as much as anybody else.