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Thinking Outside the Cell

Julie Zimmerman ’68 opens doors to learning for prisoners.

By David Treadwell


Julie Zimmerman ‘68 manages 50 volunteers and supports 450 inmates from the tiny College Guild office in Brunswick, Maine. Here she reads a letter from an inmate.

Fifteen years ago, Julie Zimmerman ’68 was running a small publishing company, Biddle Publishing, and a self-publishing co-op, Audenreed Press, when she got a collect call from a prisoner on death row named A.J. Banister. He had appeared in Dead End, a book that Zimmerman’s firm had published on the death penalty, and he wanted to help her promote it. “That call,” Zimmerman says, “changed my life.”

Zimmerman became friends with the prisoner and helped him publish his own book, Shall Suffer Death.

One day a friend was driving Zimmerman up to the Maine State Prison in Thomaston so that she could meet with one of her prisoner friends. The friend, who taught at a youth detention center, was describing how difficult it was to teach in that environment because of the rigid regulations and inconsistent schedules. Zimmerman suggested that prisoners should have the opportunity to take a correspondence course. “My friend gave me this look, and by the time we’d returned home, we had the plan mapped out.

“We wanted the courses to be creative, but not accredited,” she explains. “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. 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 (e.g. 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.

An office administrator oversees the day-to-day operation of the College Guild office and is the only paid employee. All teachers and readers contribute their time and expertise without compensation. Private contributions and a small foundation grant cover the modest budget (about $30,000 per year).

Powerful word-of-mouth, compelling results and a reference to College Guild in Playboy in June, have created an overflow of prisoners wanting to enroll in College Guild courses. About 200 prisoners are on the waiting list, not surprising since College Guild is the only program in the country offering free correspondence courses for prisoners.

Zimmerman and the 40 volunteers from around the country who serve as teachers or readers are gratified by knowing that they’re enriching the lives of prisoners. A stream of thank-you notes pours into the College Guild office throughout the year.

Here are some examples: “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.”

Swarthmore played a significant role in preparing Zimmerman to dedicate her life to educating the incarcerated. Her ties to the College run deep, as her grandparents, parents, brother, aunts, and uncles all attended. While at Swarthmore, she became a companion and friend to a teenager who was hospitalized with schizophrenia. The teenager attended Zimmerman’s graduation. Today, Zimmerman’s work powerfully reflects the Quaker belief that all lives are sacred, that no one among us is all hero or all villain.

She has maintained her positive outlook despite personal travails. Because of a debilitating neurological condition, she can no longer drive, and it is difficult for her to stand for long. A member of her own family was a murder victim, yet she remains a staunch opponent of the death penalty. She notes that she’s lost four friends to execution.

Zimmerman does not view herself as a hero. “This work is incredibly gratifying,” she says. “It helps me to think and to learn and to feel. It rounds me out as a human being.”

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