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For the past seven years, students from the Palma School in Salinas, California have been part of a book club at an unlikely place—Soledad State Prison.
Mia Mirassou and Jim Micheletti founded the book club called “Exercises In Empathy.” Micheletti told CBS News correspondent Omar Villafranca that students would go into the prison afraid but would leave with a new perspective on the incarcerated men.
“They go in thinking monster … and they come out thinking a man. A human being … they’ve done bad things, but there are no throwaway people here,” Micheletti said.
Former inmate Jason Bryant who participated in the book club said that the discussions went beyond plot lines and protagonists.
“It was incredibly refreshing to have young men come into a space with us and see us as what we are, which is people,” Bryant said.
When he was 20 years old, Bryant was sentenced to 26 years to life for his involvement in a 1999 robbery that resulted in a shooting death.
Behind bars, Bryant was looking for ways to be of service. It was at the book club that he heard about Ernest Gordon’s “Miracle On The River Kwai.” In the book, prisoners of war created a culture of sacrifice and they called it “mucking” for each other.
Inspired by the POW’s stories, Bryant and his co-defendant Ted Gray decided to “muck” for a young man. They hatched a plan to raise money from other prisoners to create a scholarship fund for a Palma student in need.
The base pay for incarcerated people in the state of California is eight cents an hour. Those with an industry job make $1 an hour, which can get you to $100 a month. That income didn’t stop almost 800 inmates from raising $32,000 for the scholarship over the course of 3 years. The inmates made the money working jobs like sweeping, clerking and making furniture.
“Incarcerated people were so drawn to, … the idea of going a mile deep in a young man’s life, that they were giving up their month’s pay to contribute,” he said.
When they learned about the inmates’ plan, Micheletti and Mirassou knew exactly who should receive the scholarship.
Before his sophomore year at Palma, Sy Green’s father had a heart transplant. His mother had an accident, lost her vision and both parents lost their jobs.
“That was a financial burden, with all the medical bills and stuff,” Green said.
Green was shocked to learn inmates, who he’d never met, had come together to pay for his tuition so he could continue going to private school.
“I was mind-blown. … And then immediately, I was just grateful,” he said.
Green is now a 19-year-old college student. He graduated from Palma School last year. He says he plans on paying the inmates’ good deed forward.
“They put all this effort and all this work into me. So I have to honor that and carry that legacy on,” Green said.
California Governor Gavin Newsom granted Bryant clemency and a second chance at life after 20 years behind bars. Bryant plans to use his freedom to continue to mentor students like Green. Bryant is the Director of Restorative Programs at CROP, a nonprofit that’s working to reduce the rate of recidivism through training, career development and stable housing.
“I don’t know about redemption. … I can say this, I know that those of us who have truly transformed our lives are committed to adding value in any way that we possibly can,” Bryant said.