HCC program helping lift people’s heads out of jail

  • Raymond Boissonault, center, and David Cuevas, right, take a composition class taught by Holyoke Community College assistant professor of English Naomi Lesley, left, on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, at the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow. The course is taught through the college's Western Mass CORE program (Community Opportunity Resources Education). —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke Community College assistant professor of English Naomi Lesley teaches a composition class to inmates at the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. The college credit course is available at the jail through the HCC's Western Mass CORE program (Community Opportunity Resources Education). —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Raymond Boissonault shows a photo of his daughter to Holyoke Community College assistant professor of English Naomi Lesley at the start of an English 101 class at the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow on May 10. With him are Joseph Martinelli, far left, and David Cuevas, foreground. The college credit course is available through the HCC’s Western Mass CORE program (community, opportunity, resources, education). STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke Community College assistant professor Naomi Lesley teaches an English 101 composition class to inmates at the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. The college credit course is available at the jail through the HCC's Western Mass CORE program (Community Opportunity Resources Education). —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bramin Cooper asks a question of Holyoke Community College assistant professor of English Naomi Lesley during a composition class Lesley teaches for inmates and pretrial detainees at the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Daryl Hill, left, and Joseph Martinelli ask questions during a composition class taught by English Professor Naomi Lesley. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Daniel Harrigan, center, and other inmates at the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow take an English 101 composition class taught by Holyoke Community College assistant professor Naomi Lesley on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. The course is available through the college's Western Mass CORE program (Community Opportunity Resources Education). —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bramin Cooper asks a question of Holyoke Community College assistant professor of English Naomi Lesley on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, during a composition class Lesley teaches for inmates at the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow. The course is taught through the college's Western Mass CORE program (Community Opportunity Resources Education). —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hampden County Sheriff's Department Director of Education Susanne Campagno talks about the college credit classes available to inmates at the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow thanks to the Holyoke Community College Western Mass CORE program. Photographed in the programs building at the jail in Ludlow on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 5/21/2022 7:03:10 AM
Modified: 5/21/2022 7:01:15 AM

LUDLOW — Sitting at a long table in the Hampden County jail’s computer lab on Tuesday afternoon, Daryl Hill pored over notes that his professor, Naomi Lesley, made on his latest writing assignment.

Hill didn’t attend college when he was younger; he said he was “scared of writing” at the time. But that’s exactly what he’s doing now, working through a college-level writing class that could earn him credits from Holyoke Community College.

On Tuesday, he was crafting a letter to lawmakers about environmental racism and inequality, pointing to situations such as the still lead-poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, or neighborhoods where the air is substantially more polluted.

“Kids are born into injustices and inequalities they know nothing about,” Hill said. As for the English 101 class he was taking, he had high praises: “Education is the key to changing the world.”

Lesley’s class at the Hampden County Correctional Center is part of HCC’s program, known as Western Mass CORE, that serves incarcerated learners and formerly incarcerated learners. HCC professors Nicole Hendricks and Mary Orisich created the CORE program — which stands for community, opportunity, resources and education — in 2019. This year, using federal coronavirus relief money, HCC has been able to make it free for accepted students.

That’s different from other college classes at the jail, said Susanne Campagna, the facility’s director of education. Normally, incarcerated students have to use financial aid to pay for courses.

In a phone interview Friday, Hendricks said that she and Orisich realized that they were often teaching students at HCC who had been incarcerated or had family members who had been jailed.

“We thought, ‘We need to create a stronger linkage between HCC, the campus and students who are learning out in the community but don’t have access to higher ed,” Hendricks said.

The Western Mass CORE program offers not only classes, but also other services. HCC provides including tutoring, writing assistance, career advising, referrals to housing and food assistance programs, and more.

The state’s Department of Higher Education has funded the program, and HCC has put federal dollars behind the classes, too. The current grant funding, which ends in September, allows the program to offer classes for free to those at the jail who apply and are accepted. Massachusetts lawmakers have not made community college classes free to people serving time, nor has it made community college free to all as other states have done.

“I would love to see the state Legislature support free community college for all students wherever they may reside,” Hendricks said. “But specifically for these students, access to quality higher education can be a pathway out of poverty and is certainly been proven to reduce the risk of being reincarcerated.”

For Raymond Boissonault, who is being held at the jail while awaiting trial, the classes offer an escape from the everyday toxicity of jail life.

“Honestly, the pod is a very negative environment — nothing positive, nothing progressive, nothing meaningful,” Boissonault said, referring to his housing unit at the jail. There, he said, people only want to brag about what they’ve done on the streets. In class, by contrast, he engages in meaningful conversation on deep topics. “Coming to class is the only positive thing I can get to build emotionally and intellectually,” he said.

On Tuesday, the topic was the third writing assignment of the year: a persuasive letter to a politician to propose solutions to a problem.

Lesley walked the students through the process of writing thesis statements, then using those as an outline for what the rest of the essay will look like. The students and their professor pointed out different parts of the thesis that could be expounded in later paragraphs, highlighting each in different colors and then thinking back to articles they’re read throughout the semester that could serve as evidence for their arguments.

“Keep in mind, you’re doing the same things you did in essay one and essay two in terms of incorporating evidence,” Lesley explained.

The conversation in the classroom was lively, with students jumping in to share their thoughts on the past readings, from critiques of the U.S. health care system to the harm reduction approach to public health. That day’s article was a 2018 New Yorker piece about why African American doctors are choosing to study medicine in Cuba.

“Best professor in the world,” Hill said of Lesley. “She’s no professor, she’s a miracle worker.”

Hendricks said that as a community college, part of HCC’s mission is to serve students in its community wherever they are. And when members of that community have not had equal access to education, it becomes a matter of equity, she said.

“I think a college classroom can create an atmosphere of teaching and learning that isn’t just about getting a credential,” Hendricks said. “It should be, and it is usually, a time of inquiry and self-reflection. And when you’re in a very difficult environment, that learning space — it’s really important for people to feel human, and I think a college classroom at its best can do that.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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