For 35 years, Vassar students have taken classes taught alongside incarcerated inmates at State of New York correctional facilities.
It was Professor of Religion and Africana Studies Lawrence Mamiya who started the very first of these classes, the Green Haven program, in 1979.
Mamiya is retiring from teaching at Vassar at the end of this year, and on Saturday, April 4 in the Aula, for the annual Green Haven reunion, friends and former students gathered to honor the man who changed so many lives.
Mamiya has been a civil rights advocate for decades. During the 1960s, he worked as a community organizer in East Harlem and registered voters in rural Georgia for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Shortly after he began teaching at Vassar in 1975, he conceived the Green Haven course as a way to show how institutional racism persists in society. Vassar students accompanied him for a field trip to the Green Haven Correctional Facility in the town of Beekman, where they interacted firsthand with incarcerated persons.
“I didn’t have to lecture about it, since students understood from their visit that about 80 [percent] of those incarcerated in prisons were Black or Latino and most of the corrections officers and administrators were white,” he wrote in an emailed statement.
Thanks to the urging of some inmates, Mamiya developed the Community Re-Entry course, which featured weekly visits to Green Haven’s pre-release center and student-driven discussion.
George Prendes was incarcerated at Green Haven the first year Mamiya came. He described how he was quickly impressed by his conscientious spirit and openness.
“He has the capacity to embrace other people and meet them where they are at,” Prendes said. “I think that makes him a unique leader to people in prison who are anesthetized to the concept of feeling oneself in a community and society.”
It was important for to him to have all his students, both those from Vassar and those from Green, in one room and communicating. The entire class hinged on what two groups, coming from very different backgrounds and enjoying very different levels of privilege, could teach each other.
The incarcerated students got something out of the interaction as well, according to Prendes. Meeting once a week to sit down and have a conversation with people living outside helped the incarcerated men prepare for life after prison.
Prendes said, “Men were getting out of prison, but they had no contact with the community, and Larry offered that by bringing the students. The students got involved with us, started giving people a human feel to what it would be like to return to society.”
When Prendes took part of the Green Haven program, he was two years into his 15-year sentence. He explained how he was convicted under the New York State Rockefeller Drug Laws, which imposed mandatory minimum sentences on nonviolent narcotic offenses, even if, as in the case of Prendes, they had no prior criminal record.
Last Saturday’s reunion also brought together a network of formerly incarcerated persons whose lives Mamiya had all touched.
Tree Arrington shared how when he began his 10-year prison sentence at the age of 28, he did not have the ability to read or write.
It was through the help of advocates like Mamiya that he was able to earn an education.
“Half of what I know is through the course of Larry Mamiya,” Arrington said. Today, he holds a doctorate in behavioral sciences, in addition to four masters degrees, three Bachelors, two Associates and a host of certifications.
Vassar alumnus Jake Berzoff-Cohen ’11 drove six hours from Baltimore to attend the reunion. He talked about the influence Mamiya had on his life.
“Dr. Mamiya is an incredible leader, teacher and man. He taught me about myself. He actually inspired me to do what I do,” said Berzoff-Cohen, a community organizer in Baltimore.
A few years ago, Green Haven Correctional Facility barred any Vassar classes from visiting. The administration claimed the environment was too dangerous. Despite the fact that, as Mamiya pointed out, there had never been an incident in the class’ over thirty-year history.
Today, the Community Reentry class instead makes weekly trips to the Otisville prison. A student in the class, Debbie Altman ‘16 described the respect she has gained for her incarcerated peer students.
She said, “Each week it gets harder to come to terms with how long many of their sentences are.” Altman went on to say, “I wish everyone had the chance to see what we get to each week.”
During the break for lunch, Tyrone Larkin, who was involved with the Green Haven Program’s founding, stepped up to a podium for a speech thanking Mamiya for the legacy he is leaving.
“We claim this to be his last day or the last year that this is going to happen,” began Larkin. “But you go back to 1979 to 2014 that’s a big bit. That’s a lot of time. That’s a whole lot of students coming to Green Haven, Otisville, and I don’t know how many other prisons that were educated.”
After Larkin’s praise and a standing ovation, Mamiya stood up to the podium to make some remarks.
“We developed a model while we were working at Green Haven,” he said, “and that model was, ‘Never let them win. Never let them win.’”
Mamiya spoke for only a couple more minutes, before setting down his microphone, slipping out from behind the podium, and quietly returning to his seat amongst his friends and students.