The Lehigh Prison Project

By Ross Rozanski  

It was a Thursday and, like many of my afternoons, I was volunteering and making an effort to help out my community. My student and I were at a small wooden table looking at sentences from a workbook, identifying grammar mistakes.

“This is a run on sentence,” he said.  “Correct!” I applauded.

“That word needs to be capitalized,” he went on. “And you could put a comma there.”

But this is where similarities between my normal tutoring sessions and this particular experience end. You see, I wasn’t in the classroom of a middle school or some hall in the local YMCA. There were no windows. My student was wearing a brown jumpsuit. There was a police officer standing by the door. I was in a prison.

Last fall, at the university I attended before transferring to USC, I joined the Lehigh Prison Project. Completely new, this program took ten students each week to Northampton County Prison in Easton, Pennsylvania to assist prisoners who were working towards obtaining their GED. But not just anybody could join. Before joining the ranks of prison tutors, I had to have my fingerprints taken, go through various security checks, and have my name looked up against national security databases. The head of the education program within the prison made it clear we would only be working with the prisoners in brown uniforms, and specifically only with prisoners that wanted to be in this particular educational program.

All prisoners at Northampton County Prison are assigned one of three colors for their jumpsuit, dependent on the severity of their crime. Brown was for the lowest offenders, and represented minor crimes associated with finances or contract infringement. The next level was orange, followed by red. In the five months I tutored in the prison, I only caught a few glimpses of red uniformed prisoners, but that was enough for me; the prisoners wearing red were murderers.

Was I worried about this new project? A little. But I already knew I was passionate about tutoring, and considering I’m often a pretty big risk taker, I wanted to try something new. Despite the cold walls and the long echoing hallways, I quickly became acquainted with this very new and unfamiliar environment.  The prison guards to whom we presented our photo ID badges were always kind and considerate. The director of educational programs within the prison always made sure we were comfortable and put us at ease. And then there were the tutorees themselves. We all did one-on-one tutoring, and my particular student was named Jose. We were strictly forbidden from asking the very tempting question of why they were in the prison, however if they felt comfortable enough with us they could tell us whatever they want. I never found out what my student was in there for, but that was beside the point.

The hour long sessions we spent together were truly meaningful to me, exposing me to a side of society that was absolutely foreign to me. Despite the stigma of people in jail, Jose was polite, cracked causal jokes, and was well mannered. Sometimes he would tell me about his friends, his family, his life. Perhaps the most salient piece of my experience going into a prison each week, sitting down with Jose, and tutoring English was not the shock of actually being inside a prison. The most outstanding part of this experience was how much the prisoners wanted to learn, and how passionate they were about turning their lives around. I could not be more proud than to help them achieve that goal.

Featured image from Pxfuel

Ross is a junior majoring in Mechanical Engineering, with specific interest in aeronautics and aviation. Born and raised in Massachusetts, he has had the opportunity to travel the world and experience what it is like to be an international student in countries such as Germany, Japan, and Argentina. Ross also has extensive experience in tutoring in different settings, from teaching math in middle schools to one-on-one English tutoring in a prison! He is familiar with the challenges that come with learning a new language, with experience studying Spanish, German, and Japanese. Ross’s hobbies include hiking, reading, and playing video games. He also has a very deep interest in cars. A fun fact about Ross is that he’s a licensed pilot! Always willing to try new things, Ross loves to travel and is eager to learn about different people’s backgrounds and stories.