Brunswick nonprofit College Guild will host a fundraiser Thursday evening to support its mission to provide free educational courses to prisoners across the country.

The event’s theme, “I have a dream,” represents College Guild’s intended impact, Executive Director Mary Malia said. While the service’s 600 users around the country are prisoners, Malia’s team wants to help them see themselves as learners.

“’Student’ is a label that’s about hope,” she said. “It gives people back a dream that their life could be different.”

Any prisoner in the country can sign up to receive printed College Guild course materials by writing the organization. They can pick from a selection of 32 different courses, paying only the cost of postage to mail their work back to the nonprofit for evaluation and comment.

A network of about 300 volunteer readers throughout the U.S. and Canada provide written feedback and encouragement after a student finishes each unit.

Courses span a huge range of topics, including marine biology, poetry and psychology, Malia said. Yet the non-accredited program’s real goal is less about subject mastery and more about helping students develop critical thinking and social skills that will help them grow as people and succeed after they leave prison.


“Criminality Cocktails,” an oil painting by student Leo Cardez detailing his path to the prison system, will be the lone item up for auction at Thursday’s fundraiser.

For prisoners cut off from the outside world, especially those with limited access to other educational materials or libraries, College Guild offers an important respite from the monotony of incarceration, said Ray Randall, a former student who will speak at Thursday’s event.

“To get a new lesson plan was like having a burst of sunshine on a cloudy day,” said Randall, who spent a decade behind bars in Colorado after pleading guilty to murder. “I found that College Guild helped me survive. I never felt totally abandoned.”

While some might dismiss efforts to educate those convicted of violent crimes, Malia argued that programs like College Guild can play a key part of fixing a cycle of incarceration that destroys lives and burdens the American taxpayer.

“More than 95% of the people who are in prison today are getting out,” she said, citing data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. “They’re coming here to live with us. We want them better able to exist in society.”

She said providing education opportunities, which a 2018 study from the RAND corporation linked with reduced recidivism rates, is far more cost-effective than paying the $44,000 the Justice Department estimates it costs to imprison a single Mainer for a year. It costs College Guild about $240 to provide a year of free courses for one prisoner.

The program can have nearly as big an impact on its team of volunteers, who devote three to five hours each month to evaluating students’ work, said Bunny Andrews, a College Guild reader and member of the board of trustees.


Andrews had very little personal connection to prisoners or the penal system before volunteering with College Guild, she said. But after four years of reading students’ writing, she’s learned to see past the social stigma that can dehumanize American prisoners.

“They’re not just the worst thing they’ve ever done,” she said. “We’ve got to keep that in mind because we don’t know potential and the gifts that can flower and grow when a person is given a chance to change – even a small chance.”

The celebration, to be held under a tent at 6 Boody St. from 5 to 7 p.m., will feature drinks and appetizers, according to the organization’s website. Guest speakers, including Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition Executive Director Joseph Jackson, will discuss the relationship between education and the prison system.

Those interested in attending Thursday’s event can purchase tickets for $10 at College Guild’s website. According to Malia, donating or signing up to be a reader will help the organization continue to stoke dreams across the country.

“There are many people who are destined to live and die behind high walls and razor wire,” she said, “but we still want them to know that they get to dream. That’s part of being a human being.”

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