Universities today are often accused of sheltering students from life, of instilling into them nothing but abstract, impractical knowledge. Loyola is certainly no less guilty of this crime than any other university—perhaps even more guilty than some—but there are opportunities for students to break away from the protective shell of the university.
One little-known opportunity is an independent study course in the Honors and Privileged Studies Program. Insight Center, the official abbreviated name on the registrar’s schedule does not begin to describe the human element of working with ex-convicts in a rehabilitation home.
Located in one of those New Orleans neighborhoods not far removed geographically from classy St. Charles Avenue, in mood however, miles away, the Insight Center is conspicuous with its new paint and open door.
The atmosphere inside that door is casual. A radio is playing upstairs, men are painting or cooking and everyone goes by first names.
The center’s director, Roger McGrew, is an atypical southern Baptist minister, a big man with a full beard and wire-rimmed glasses. He speaks forcibly about the “Crime of the prison system.”
“We’ve changed every cruel system in the world,” he says, “but we aren’t doing enough about prison reforms.” Committed to reform himself, he urges students to get involved because “students today are naïve; they’re totally unaware of what’s going on in the outside world.”
The volunteer program at the Insight Center can bring students more closely into contact with reality benefitting students and residents of the house.
“You’d be surprised how quickly these guys respond to students. Most of them are from broken homes—they’re underloved and underfed. But when a student shows he cares about the residents, they honor him for that love feeling,” McGrew said.
One student involved with the center last semester stressed love. “Those people need love—they need someone to rely on. Most of the guys are around students’ ages, and they need companionship. Society owes them a chance. They’ve already served their time for what they’ve done. If society doesn’t do something, they’ll just go back to stealing and cheating,” said Roy Austin, a City College marketing major.
“As soon as a student gets down there, he gets to know the people and becomes friends with them. He just keeps going back,” Austin said.
Student volunteers do everything from office work to cleaning and cooking or painting. The main thing, though, is the relationship with the residents.
“The only meaningful thing in life is in relationships,” McGrew contends. “And there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing changes in someone’s life. Students here are involved in everything but the actual therapy with the residents—and they’re even involved in that insofar as therapy is nothing more than a healthy relationship with someone.”
Roy Austin agrees. “I didn’t get involved just for the credit. I did it because I wanted to. I used to stop by there all the time, even brought some of the guys to my classes. If I didn’t stop by for a while, they’d call up and ask ‘Hey Man, how’s it going?’ The thing is to help them, not to put them down.”
Someone else helping them is a volunteer therapist working with Transactional Analysis, David Friedman. “Students with any preconceived notions about ex-convicts soon get educated,” he says. “They’ll learn from communication with the guys here that a lot of them have more going for them than some people in school. Students today are going to be responsible for changes in the prison system. They will have to initiate laws requiring half-way houses and filling them.”
Both Friedman and another staff member, Jesse Wright, a convict who is sentenced to the center—express the need for student involvement, but also discourage what they call “bleeding hearts”—students who say they want to get involved, but never do.
“When I was in prison, I used to tour universities and tell them about the need for reforms. They students would ask me what they could do. A lot would commit themselves, but then never show up.
“Then I’d wonder ‘Was it all wasted? Did I pull my heart out to let them know about the situation in prisons, for nothing?’ Being in prison is like being trapped. You’re in a fish bowl, and completely dependent on others to help you,” Wright said.
Last semester there were six Loyola students involved with the center, but this semester there are only three. The course moderator, Dr. Don Brady, Associate Professor of Drama and Speech, has student volunteers contact McGrew at the center, and periodically checks to see what work is being done.
Austin describes the course as exciting: “There’s no homework involved, and no studying. All that it takes is time and love. Once you go down to the house, it holds you.”