In one year, Sy Newson Green went through more than a child should have to. During his freshman year at the private, all-boys Catholic high school, the Palma School, his father suffered a heart attack and required a transplant. That same year, his mother was hit in the face by a softball and lost her vision. What was already a major financial burden worsened when the two lost their jobs.
In a time when Green needed stability more than ever, it was looking like the family wouldn’t be able to afford the $12,900 annual tuition, which would force him to move to a new high school his sophomore year.
As often happens when a community hears about a tragic accident, an unlikely group of people pooled together to help: inmates at the Soledad State Prison.
In 2013, Palma School English and theology teacher, Jim Micheletti, launched a reading program at the prison: Exercises in Empathy. During this unique book club, Palma upperclassmen and teachers would meet at the prison to discuss books with the inmates. The program is designed to not only give inmates a new perspective on things, but students too.
Sy Green and Jason Bryant.
One reading was particularly inspiring to Jason Bryant and Ted Gray, former inmates serving for armed robbery. In 2016 they read Miracle On The River Kwai by Ernest Gordon—a novel about a group of prisoners of war who change their mindset from ‘survival of the fittest’ to one of unity and giving. Bryant, Gray, and a few others decided to emulate the book’s message by forming a group of men whose goal was to look out for one another.
Not too long after, word of Sy Green’s situation found its way to the prison. In the book, “mucking” was used as a term for having one another’s backs. Grey turned to Bryant and said, “Jay, we need to muck for a young man to attend Palma School.”
At the prison, inmates can work a variety of jobs to secure some sort of income. Though it’s nowhere near a living wage, it gives the inmates an opportunity to not leave prison penniless. Out of two thousand inmates, Bryant and Gray managed to secure donations from one in three twice a year—making Sy’s tuition a far more manageable price.
“I broke down and started crying because I knew where it was coming from,” says Frank Green, Sy’s father, about the donation.
Media coverage on Exercises in Empathy.
Over the course of three years, Bryant secured $24,000 from inmates and an additional $8,00 from outside beneficiaries. The donation was nearly enough to cover Green’s education entirely.
Though usually reserved for upperclassmen, Sy Green was permitted to join the Exercises in Empathy after his first donation came in so he could meet the men supporting him. When he arrived, his beneficiaries stood in a line, ready to shake his hand. He was floored by the kind and warm attitudes he received.
“You have to have an open mind,” Green said. “If you go in there closed-minded, you’re not going to receive the wisdom they want to give to you.”
Thanks to the actions of Bryant, Sy Green graduated in 2020. He now attends San Francisco’s Academy of Art and majors in communications. His goal is to play professional basketball and then work in sports broadcasting.
Since the program launched, Jason Bryant was granted clemency after serving 20 years of his 26-year sentence. During his time incarcerated, he earned a bachelor’s and two masters’ degrees remotely, giving him the opportunity to serve as Director of Restorative Programs at CROP. At this nonprofit, Bryant supports men like him by focusing on the reduction of recidivism through housing, training, and career development.
“I don’t know about redemption… I can say this,” he says, “I know that those of us who have truly transformed our lives are committed to adding value in any way that we possibly can.”
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