UGA students Ben Price (left) and Zachary Reynolds help a state prisoner during a GED class at the Athens-Clarke County Correctional Institution in Athens. UGA students Kavi Pandian of Tucker and Manasa Kadiyala of Johns Creek created the program in 2016. Contributed by Phil Skinner
Photo: For the AJC
Photo: For the AJC

UGA students expand educational opportunities for inmates

Some University of Georgia students aren’t just learning, they’re also teaching. And their students are prison inmates.

UGA students Kavi Pandian of Tucker and Manasa Kadiyala of Johns Creek launched the all-volunteer Athens Prison Tutorial in late 2016.

The program at Athens-Clarke County Correctional Institution helps inmates prepare for the four-part test that’s required for a GED, the equivalent of a high school diploma.

To date, dozens of inmates at the medium-security prison have gone through the program, and 18 have obtained their GEDs, deputy warden Charles Mason said.

“It’s been a positive for us,” he said.

UGA students don’t receive college credits or pay for their labors. They just have the satisfaction of knowing they’ve helped an inmate reach a milestone that could one day be a door-opener to a job or even college.

“Our work is done purely for the sake of helping a group that is often overlooked by society – people who are incarcerated,” Pandian, 22, said.

He came up with the idea of creating a GED tutoring program for prison inmates in Athens during his senior year of high school when he was visiting Ivy League Princeton University, where he was offered a full scholarship. Because he expressed interest in both education and criminal justice, he was told he needed to check out the Petey Greene Program. The program, piloted at Princeton, brings students from Harvard, Brown, University of Pennsylvania and two dozen other top-notch colleges and universities into prisons as GED tutors.

Pandian ultimately decided to attend UGA, and, together, he and Kadiyala launched a tutoring program for inmates at Athens-Clarke CI and the local prison diversion center.

“For three months, it was just the two of us going whenever we could,” Pandian said.

Once prison officials saw that the two students were committed, they fully embraced the tutoring program. They also began buying the necessary teaching materials that Pandian and Kadiyala had been paying for out of their own pockets.

Inmates were initially skeptical, as well. “They weren’t sure we were coming back,” Pandian said.

But the two did return. And within months, they had recruited 30 other UGA students as volunteer tutors and added more classes.

Mason said the program works well. “It allows inmates to still go out to work in the day and study in the evenings,” he said.

Inmates in their late teens to 50s have gone through the tutoring program in math, science, language arts, and social studies. Some have been new to the prison system, and others have been incarcerated for decades. Since all are convicted felons, the tutoring sessions are captured on security cameras for the UGA students’ safety.

Kadiyala, who had prior tutoring experience, said the inmates she’s worked with were “like the best students I’ve ever had.

“They were just so, so focused. They wanted to do it for themselves and their families,” she said. “And they inspired me to be a better student.”

The Athens prison facility had a prior GED program that fizzled out a few years ago.

Manasa Kadiyala

“Kavi and Manasa were just invaluable in getting it back on its feet, so to speak,” Mason said.

In September, the correctional institution had a graduation ceremony for four inmates who earned their GEDs and eight who completed a prison welding program. Two of the graduates received both their GEDs and their welding certificates, Mason said. Families and friends were invited, and the mayor of Athens gave the keynote address.

Pandian and Kadiyala weren’t there. They graduated from UGA in May — Pandian with a degree in sociology and economics and Kadiyala with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology.

Pandian is spending a year in Nuremberg, Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship. Kadiyala is now living in Philadelphia and attending Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, with plans for a career in medicine.

In their senior year of college, Pandian and Kadiyala set the wheels in motion for the inmate tutoring program – now part of the university’s honors program — to continue indefinitely. They trained two underclassmen who share their passion for helping the inmates to take charge of the program. This year, those same students are training their successors.

The inmates “describe our classes as providing them with a sense of purpose and fulfillment — a sentiment echoed by tutors, too,” Pandian said. “Upon release, our students will be better equipped to learn, find employment, and build a better future — for themselves and their communities.”

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