OXFORD, Georgia. – Two former Oxford College students recently reunited with some of the former prisoners they helped teach as part of a special program offering college courses to inmates at a Gwinnett County State Prison.
Katie Pleiss of Dunwoody and Ally Render of Johns Creek were the students who volunteered for a college prison program called Common Good Atlanta while at Oxford College of Emory University in 2019.
They participated in the program at Philips State Prison, a medium security prison near Buford.
Their work included tutoring incarcerated students in math and writing, reviewing research proposals from incarcerated students, and finding research material for prisoners who did not have Internet access.
Pleiss recently graduated from Emory University and will enter Harvard Law School in August.
She said she was originally inspired to become a lawyer after reading a book called “Just Mercy” by a lawyer who worked with disadvantaged clients.
“It definitely solidified me by arguing for better terms,” Pleiss said.
She said she wanted to work with the program after taking lessons from Sarah Higinbotham, an English teacher at Oxford College.
Higinbotham founded Common Good Atlanta in 2008 after saying she felt called upon to volunteer to teach in a prison in response to her uncle’s incarceration, according to the association’s information.
The program has grown to include more than 60 faculty members teaching courses in four prisons, including Phillips, Metro Reentry Facility, Whitworth Women’s Facility, and Burruss Correctional.
Pleiss said she oversees inmates’ monthly writing projects and is able to build one-on-one relationships with them.
“Before COVID, that was a big part of my college experience,” she said.
One thing she had to overcome was her apprehension of going through the security measures required to enter a state prison.
“It was intense, very intimidating,” she said.
“Walking into an environment where you are yelled at, I remember the first two times I felt like a criminal,” Pleiss said. “You can easily get into trouble if you’re not wearing the right badge. ”
Render recently graduated in quantitative science.
She taught math to inmates in a course similar to those required to earn a GED, Render said.
Participation in the program has shown her that there are areas that help “restore dignity and humanity” to prisoners, she said.
“I learned that education was a way for them to reconnect with society,” she said. “They kind of changed … my view of education.”
A press release detailed their meeting in an Atlanta park with former Prison Program alumni to celebrate the recent graduation of Oxford alumni at Emory University.
Pleiss told six former inmates who participated in the program that “You changed everything for me.”
“From writing my honors thesis on the need for human dignity in prison to guiding my path to law school, you have inspired me,” she said.
A former inmate, identified only as Quang, who went to jail at the age of 16 and served 20 years, brought his young son to the park.
As he held his son in his arms, he told the graduates, “You didn’t just help us while we were in prison, you also transformed the next generation, our children. ”
Another ex-convict named Dominique told Emory students that “you have no idea the difference you made”.
“You showed us that we were your peers, even when we were barely treated like human beings in prison. You have convinced us that we have something to offer the world, and now we are ready to do it. Thank you.”