MIESHA BELL is a Rutgers University senior and the president of the Mountainview Project Student Organization (MVP-SO), a group founded in 2011 by formerly incarcerated Rutgers students. Named after the Rutgers University Mountainview Program, an admissions program that identifies and recruits motivated college-ready students inside NJ prisons, the MVP-SO serves the Rutgers and New Brunswick communities by raising awareness of the transformative power of education for incarcerated people and the collateral consequences of mass incarceration in America.

Members of the MVP-SO tutor in NJ correctional facilities through the Petey Greene Program.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Were you interested in criminal justice before you started volunteering with the Petey Greene Program?

I actually had more of an interest in education. I’ve always seen a difference in the education that I received, for example, going to school in a suburban area, compared to the education my cousins had in New York City. Differences in our education kind of shaped where we are today. And after going to the Mountainview Project meetings and interacting with people in the Petey Greene Program, my interest in criminal justice just exploded. I’m especially interesting in the correlation between access to educational opportunities and a person’s likelihood of going to prison.

Were you nervous about going into a correctional facility?

Absolutely! I was nervous about everything! You watch movies, you watch TV shows, and you just assume this is what happens in prison. You see all these terrible things. When I went to the facility for the first time, it reminded me of Old Queens [an academic building] at Rutgers and if it weren’t for the guards, and the fences, it’s so easy to forget where you are so quickly, because it just feels like you’re in school. I almost forgot where I was. Once I went inside for the first time, I was more nervous about my abilities than I was about the people. Like, “what if they ask a question and I don’t know the answer? I don’t want to look stupid.  I don’t want them to see this little eighteen year old girl and just dismiss me, because who am I to come in here and think that I know more than they do?” I think that was my biggest concern.

Has that concern diminished over time?

I want to say that self-doubt is something that you’re going to experience throughout the process. You just become more confident in your ability to articulate that, if you don’t know something.  Because at the end of the day, of course you don’t want to tell someone, “Oh, this is how you do it” if it’s not, or, “this is the answer” when it’s not.  So if I’m not sure, I’ll just say, “I’m not sure about that, but next week I’ll get back to you on this.” There’s been times when I’ve been asked questions that I didn’t know the answer to, and I’d ask my professors after class, then come back and relay that message.

What’s been the most challenging thing in your tutoring experience?

Once I was tutoring someone and we were going over his math work.  He needed to divide 4 over 12. And he didn’t know how to do it.  So I looked at his file to see what grade he had completed before prison, so I could break it down the way he needed it for his level. I assumed that maybe he’d gotten to sixth grade and then maybe something had happened – I wasn’t sure. I knew you covered fractions pretty early on in school.  But then I saw in his file that he’d gotten to 11th grade. And that just broke my heart.  For me, it was kind of that shift from thinking that this is just an individual problem to: OK, this is a structural problem. The fact that someone had gotten to the 11th grade and didn't know how to simplify a fraction was really heartbreaking for me. His teachers passed him. And all it took for me was two minutes of explaining it before he understood it. Just two minutes. If one teacher had just taken two extra minutes with him, that could have changed so much.  At the time, I had to hold back tears.  Later that night, I just started crying.  Because how many other people didn’t get those two minutes? How many other people’s lives could have been different? This is a structural problem. This isn’t just one person’s problem.  This is happening to kids all over the country. Children aren’t supposed to be left behind – but they’re being left behind. That’s hard for me.

Was there a time that you felt you were making a big impact?

It’s great to work with the students in things like reading and math, but I also love having conversations with the students about college.  I say to them “you know, you can do this.” From my work with the Mountainview Project, I have a lot of stories about people who had been incarcerated who have been successful at the university.  So I use those stories in conversation to tell the students, “you know, it’s possible.” It’s easier to achieve something when you know someone else has already done it.  Seeing them get excited about other people’s stories gets me excited. Seeing hope in someone’s eyes. It’s something that it’s hard to articulate, but it’s something so powerful, and it’s helped shape the person that I am today.

How has this impacted who you are now, what you want to do? What are you taking away from this?

This has helped shape the type of work that I want to do. I know a lot of my friends are unsure of what they want to do, but I’ve been saved by the Mountainview Project and by the Petey Greene Program.  I know what I want to do, I know what my purpose is.  I want to go into higher education student affairs, for graduate school. I want to help to develop other programs like the Mountainview Project. I know there’s going to be a rough road ahead, but I feel that it’s important to challenge the idea of what a college student is supposed to be, and where a college student is supposed to come from. And I’ve met the most amazing people, both through Petey Greene and Mountainview.  Everyone makes mistakes.  But that shouldn’t determine the rest of your life. Once you’ve paid your dues to society, so to speak, you should be given the same opportunities as everyone else. Because most of the time people who are incarcerated weren’t given the same opportunities.  I think it’s important for me to try to create a space for people to find hope through education. And I feel like that’s my purpose, and something that I want to help fulfill.

 

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