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Emerson Launches College in Prison Program

This semester, Emerson is offering a college-in-prison program at MCI-Concord, by teaching a 4-credit liberal arts course to 20 inmates and furthering the College’s commitment to civic engagement and education for all.

The Emerson Prison Initiative, a three-year pilot program, is being spearheaded by Assistant Professor Mneesha Gellman, who is teaching the inaugural course—essentially the same Power and Privilege seminar she’s teaching first-year students on Emerson’s Boston campus.

“Equality in education is really at the core of why I think this program is important,” Gellman said.

There are a number of collegiate prison education programs nationwide, some that offer credit, some that don’t, she said. Since the 1970s, Boston University has offered courses at MCI-Norfolk and MCI-Framingham.

The Emerson Prison Initiative (EPI) is modeled after the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a national leader in prison education, which Gellman first encountered 16 years ago as an undergraduate student at Bard College.

EPI is not a vocational program or an initiative focused on reducing recidivism, she said. Educators in the Consortium for Liberal Arts in Prison, a group of 12 colleges based at Bard that Emerson joined this month, believe that a liberal arts education is “transformative” and valuable for its own sake.

“Without ranting about the failures of the prison industrial complex, I think it’s important to find ways to intervene in a system that has decided that warehousing people is an acceptable response to crime and social injustice,” she said.

A year and a half ago, Gellman began talking with Amy Ansell, dean of the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, and Provost Michaele Whelan about offering classes at MCI-Concord, which up until now has never had a sustained college program. She organized some one-off guest lectures for 20 inmates at Concord last year, who were very engaged, she said.

In June, President Lee Pelton signed off on the three-year pilot program and committed to funding one faculty-taught class per semester and waiving tuition for 20 students per class. The Petey Greene Program, a nonprofit that supplements educational programs in correctional institutions, recruited and trained two Ivy League-educated tutors to hold study halls for the course.

When Gellman and Daniel Karpowitz, BPI director of policy and academics, ran an information session at MCI-Concord in early August, nearly 100 of the medium-security prison’s 700 inmates showed up. Eighty-six came back to take a timed essay admissions exam, and 41 were interviewed based on the results of the test.

But if initial interest in the course was strong, dedication from the 20 admitted students is intense, Gellman said.

It can take some cajoling to get her main campus students to do all the assigned reading, she said, but when she walks into her classroom at MCI-Concord, the men have read the assignments numerous times and come prepared with a ton of questions and things they want to say.

“They are just really excited to be in college and to have the opportunity to engage their brains deeply and to form the kind of intellectual community that is missing in the prison environment,” Gellman said.

Though the syllabi on Boylston Street and in Concord are identical, there is one major difference besides geography: The prison students can’t use the internet.

Inmates have access to newspapers such as the New York Times and can request books and periodical articles from a list of potential sources generated by librarians. But they can’t just Google something, or log onto a library database.

“What for us is a 30-second query is for them a three-week process,” she said.

On Tuesday, September 26, the College held an official launch for EPI, where MIT history professor and BPI Senior Fellow Craig Steven Wilder gave the keynote address. Wilder gave a history of “redlining” in Greater New York, explaining how the policies of banks, developers, and government agencies in the early- to mid-20th century led to racial housing segregation—resulting in less investment in communities of color, greater inequality, and higher incarceration rates.

Wilder said when he was first invited to give lectures in prisons about a decade ago, “to be perfectly honest, it’s not what I wanted to do.”

But after meeting the students, he was struck by how easily people on the outside are able to distance themselves from people inside prisons and their circumstances.

“Once you go into a prison and teach, you can’t walk out and have that disconnect continue,” Wilder said. “It’s important for universities to be agents for reminding ourselves of the humanity of others.

“Universities should be reckless in the pursuit of social justice,” he said.

Gellman said she’s proud of the fact that right now, the Concord students are getting credit for the courses they take, which they’d be able to apply to programs at Emerson or other colleges once they’re released (the students are serving a range of sentences, from a few years to life).

If the pilot takes off, she’s hoping it will grow, and that Emerson eventually will find ways to matriculate students into degree-bearing programs.

Society can debate what kinds of rights people should have to give up when they’re convicted of a crime, but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, includes education, Gellman said.

“I think my aspiration is for Emerson to see this as a flagship program that embraces the values of educational access and the promotion of critical thinking and communication as a core value,” she said. “While in part it does represent civic engagement for Emerson, it’s also an extension of our educational programming to a historically marginalized population.”



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