OXFORD, Ga. — Two former Oxford College students recently reunited with some of the former prisoners they helped teach in a special program that offered college courses to inmates at a state prison in Gwinnett County.
Katie Pleiss of Dunwoody and Ally Render of Johns Creek were the students who volunteered with a college-in-prison program called Common Good Atlanta while they were at Oxford College of Emory University in 2019.
They participated in the program at Philips State Prison, which is a medium security prison near Buford.
Their work included tutoring the incarcerated students in math and writing, reviewing incarcerated students’ research proposals and searching for research material for the prisoners who did not have access to the internet.
Pleiss recently graduated from Emory University and will enter Harvard Law School in August.
She said she was originally inspired to work toward becoming an attorney after reading a book titled “Just Mercy” by a lawyer who worked with disadvantaged clients.
“It definitely solidified (me) advocating for improved conditions,” Pleiss said.
She said she wanted to work with the program after taking courses taught by Oxford College English professor Sarah Higinbotham.
Higinbotham founded Common Good Atlanta in 2008 after saying she felt called to volunteer to teach at a prison as a response to her uncle's incarceration, according to information from the nonprofit.
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 oversaw the inmates’ monthly writing projects and was able to establish one-on-one relationships with them.
“Before COVID, it 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.
“Going into an environment where you’re yelled at, I remember the first couple of times I felt like a criminal,” Pleiss said. “You can easily get in trouble if you’re not wearing the right name tag.”
Render recently earned a degree in quantitative sciences.
She tutored the inmates in math as part of a course that was similar to those required to obtain a GED, Render said.
Participation in the program showed her some subject areas help “restore dignity and humanity” to prisoners, she said.
“I learned education was a way for them to reconnect with society,” she said. “They kind of changed … how I viewed education.”
A press release detailed their meeting at an Atlanta park with alumni from the prison program to celebrate the former Oxford students’ recent graduations from Emory University.
Pleiss told six former inmates who participated in the program that, “You changed everything for me.”
“From writing my honors thesis about the need for human dignity in prison to steering my path toward law school, you guys inspired me,” she said.
One former inmate, only identified as Quang, who went to prison at age 16 and served 20 years, brought his young son to the park.
As he held his son, he told the graduates “You didn’t just help us while we were in prison, you transformed the next generation — our children — too.”
Another former inmate named Dominique told the Emory students that, “you have no idea the difference you made.”
“You showed us we are your peers, even when we were hardly treated like human beings in prison. You convinced us that we have something to give the world, and now we are out and making it. Thank you.”