• Maya Huter

The value of a second chance

Updated: Jan 5, 2020

By Maya Huter and Carly D’Eon

The American prison system is riddled with issues of injustice for those who fall into its cycle. The national recidivism rate, meaning the rate at which people who are released from prison end up back in prison, is 63%. This means that 63% of American inmates will go through several cycles of incarceration, ultimately spending years of their lives within the confines of the federal prison system. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 45% of America’s inmates are incarcerated for drug related offenses. There are so many different areas within the prison industrial complex that need reform, but much of the current conversation on the topic is about what can be done from the outside. Rarely do we hear of ways to help people who are already incarcerated benefit from their time in prison, or what can be done to ensure that they don’t end up in prison again. 

One thing that has been successful in helping inmates break the cycle of incarceration and recidivism has been educational programs. According to data from the Bard Prison Initiative, people who received a degree while inside saw their rates of recidivism drop to between 1 and 2%.

Programs like the Bard Prison Initiative and the Emerson Prison Initiative have proven to improve the future prospects of inmates who participate. However, a college degree is not the only way to change someone’s path. There is a scope of educational programs ranging from college degrees to non-profit writing workshops to tutoring and mentorship programs available to inmates. Each of these play a role in helping people get the skills necessary to not have to return to crime once they are released. Whether that means providing inmates with a degree to help them get a job, or simply providing them with an outlet to express themselves creatively through writing, education has the ability to change the course of someone’s life.

Writers Without Margins is a nonprofit organization aiming to help heal people through the process of reading and writing poetry. Cheryl Buchanan, the founder of Writers Without Margins, founded the program because she saw a need for a creative outlet for inmates. Their mission is to expand access to the literary arts for under-resourced communities in Greater Boston, including people experiencing addiction recovery, trauma, poverty, disability, and mental illness. Buchanan left her job as a lawyer to start this non-profit. Every tuesday, she brings Writers Without Margins to Wyman re-entry center, where she conducts a writing workshop with returning citizens who have recently been released from prison. Every year, Cheryl and her students create a journal comprised of all of the pieces they have written to share their stories.

For inmates who are still incarcerated, college degree programs can help ensure that once they are released, they will have more opportunities for success than they had coming in. The Emerson Prison Initiative (EPI) is a program that brings Emerson College classes to incarcerated students at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Concord, which is a men’s medium security prison 25 miles outside of Boston. In the summer of 2017, Emerson joined the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, which is a consortium of colleges that offer degree granting programs to incarcerated people. The first group of students who joined in 2017 are currently on track to graduate with an Emerson degree in the summer of 2022.

“We do as much as possible the same kind of class we would run on the Boston campus but in a classroom where a correctional officer walks by every so often to check in on the class,” says Mneesha Gellman, the founder and director of EPI. 

In Massachusetts, the only right to education that incarcerated people have is through the secondary level. They have the legal right to high school equivalency programs, such as the HiSET or the GED, but they have no legal right to college level classes. EPI tries to address that deficit for people who would not have access to a college degree in any other form.

Gellman founded EPI after spending her time as a graduate student at Bard College volunteering for the Bard Prison Initiative in its early years. Founded in 1999, the Bard Prison Initiative was the first program to offer college degrees to inmates in the New York state prison system. The program launched with 16 students in 2001, and the first degrees were granted in 2005. Since then, the program has issued 550 degrees across six prisons in New York. The Bard Prison Initiative debate team even beat Harvard in a 2015 debate.

Admission to EPI’s degree program is rigorous, just like any other college admission process. Students applying to the program had to have a high school diploma from pre-incarceration or have taken an equivalency test to be eligible. Once they applied, sat for a timed essay entrance exam, where they were required to respond to one of three liberal arts prompts in 90 minutes. The essays were read by a panel of Emerson faculty members, including Gellman. 40 students were invited back for follow up interviews and then 20 were ultimately selected to join what Gellman calls “the cohort.”

“The creative and intellectual spark in someone’s mind is what we’re looking for,” Gellman says about the admission process. “So even if someone doesn’t have the answer to the question, they are they interested in asking good questions.”

Students can receive what is called “good time”, meaning time taken off of their sentence, for participating in college programs. “Some people might apply because they’re interested in having good time, some people might apply because they don’t know what else to do with themselves,” says Gellman. “We’re looking for the people who have that hunger to learn, the same way students apply to any college.”

Students were admitted to the program without factoring in the amount of time left in their sentences. Applicants were however required to have at least a few years left on their sentence so they could be enrolled for the full length of the program. The program is already down from 20 students to 13, because 7 students were either classed down to minimum security or were relocated to other prisons.

“Many of them will take their Emerson degree and be returning citizens re-entering their home communities well within the framework of their working life so they will be able to apply their college degree to their career path,” says Gellman. “There are a couple of students who are serving much longer sentences and we really see them as being intellectual leaders within the confines of the prison. They can serve as role models to talk about the positive benefits of education to other incarcerated people.” 

EPI students are working towards a degree in "Media, Literature and Culture," which combines major requirements from Emerson’s Visual Media Arts and Writing, Literature and Publishing majors, along with the college’s Liberal Arts requirements. This semester students are taking an Intro to Finance class, an Intro to Genocide Studies class and a Research Writing class. Students in Gellman's class sit in a circle, just as they would do at Emerson.

Whenever possible, EPI professors try to teach the same class at Concord that they would on the Emerson campus. In the fall of 2017, Gellman simultaneously taught an interdisciplinary course called “Power and Privilege” on both campuses. “I would bring little tidbits from one class to the other back and forth from week to week so students could hear how the other group was relating to the material,” Gellman says. 

The program has to avoid the classes that are production-based within those majors because of the difficulty of bringing technology into the prison. “When faculty go into the prison we are stripped of everything we usually carry,” Gellman says. “We don't bring in our phones, we dont bring in our wallets. We have to leave our car key in a little locker in the visitor room. We can only carry in our notes and a pen and a textbook.”

When EPI first started and had little funding, the program was looking like it was going to be a seven year process. Emerson only provides funding for two classes a year. Gellman has to fundraise for the remaining six classes herself. Gellman says that she hopes that these proportions will shift, and that Emerson will increase support.

Through contributions of faculty, most of whom teach entirely for free, and private donors, the program has been able to expand their classes, from offering a class or two a semester to now offering a full load of eight classes per year. Gellman was also able to secure grants for the last two years from the Gardner Helen Shah Foundation, which is a Massachusetts based organization that funds criminal justice related issues. For each year moving forward they are trying to offer three classes in the fall, three in spring and two in the summer, which means the graduation track has been shortened to 5 years. 

“When we think about what a college degree can do for our students, at the most basic level, it can provide them access to a meaningful above ground career that can allow them to not recidivate, to not fall into the sort of economic situation where that might happen,” Gellman says. “I'm very hopeful that providing an Emerson degree will allow people to have different economic opportunities when they leave, and also change the way they are spending their time.”

Another effective means of educating inmates is through positive mentorship and tutoring. The Petey Greene Program, founded in 2007, pairs volunteer tutors with local departments of corrections. The program sends volunteers to correctional facilities where they work to support educational programs that exist within the facilities. They have 150 tutor volunteers in Massachusetts and over 1,000 within New England.

Kaneesha Johnson is a PHD student at Harvard University, where she has focused her research on inequality, race and punishment and the impact those factors have on society. She volunteers in the Judge John J. Connelly Youth Center in Roslindale once a week, where she tutors inmates between the ages of 12 and 18.

“The U.S. is locking up too many people, and I think we all agree that we should not be locking up kids” says Johnson.  “They can be as young as 12 years old and be in prison. I've had students who are twelve years old and that’s just horrific. The least that I could do is go in there and do what I can to make sure they get a good education.”

Johnson, who has had several experiences with incarcerated family members of her own, says that her education about the American prison system is what drives her to keep coming back, despite how heartbreaking it may be. “Once you start to know about the incarceral state, it’s really difficult to not do anything,” she says. 

Johnson’s students are primarily studying for the HiSET exam. This includes tutoring in math, english, social studies and science. For many of the students at Connelly, the tutoring they receive from volunteers like Johnson is the highest form of education they’ve ever had. 

“Going into prison, there’s a lot of making up to do,” says Johnson. Most of the students come from communities vulnerable to poverty, crime and gang activity. Many of them had to drop out of school entirely to be able to help support their families, and in many cases, that meant turning to crime to make ends meet. “Many of the kids end up dropping out of school or haven't been in stable schooling for a number of years. A lot of them have moved around the foster care system, a lot of them have been involved in crime, a lot of them just drop out and that's when things become unstable,” she says. 

HiSET, which stands for High School Equivalency Test, can only be taken by students who are not enrolled in a public school system. For Johnson’s students, this means having to un-enroll from the Boston Public School system due to their incarceration. “A lot of them feel very unsafe going of high school again due to gang activity in Boston, so they need to get this exam because they likely won't re-enroll,” says Johnson. “We are denying them a human right if we do not give [an education] to them. ”

For children who have already been incarcerated before leaving middle or high school, educational opportunities like the HiSET provides them with skills to be able to enter the labor force after their release. Leaving Connelly with a high school equivalency diploma means they are eligible to begin higher education, which opens up possibilities beyond returning to gangs, selling drugs, and returning to crime. 

Regardless of age, a degree can re-route an incarcerated persons cycle of recidivism, and provide them with more opportunities upon release than they had coming into prison. 

Bill Littlefield is another Petey Greene volunteer who is placed at MCI concord with EPI students. “People who become more capable of writing have an enormous advantage over people who are not good writers, can't write clearly and know it. They are skeptical of even filling out job applications sometimes,” says Littlefield about his students. 

The students that Littlefield tutors are in a vastly different position than Johnson’s. Most of them are serving very long sentences for very serious crimes. They are mostly middle aged men, ranging from ages 30 to 60. They are overwhelmingly African American or Latino. However, the circumstances that led the students at EPI to incarceration, and those that landed the Connelly students in juvenile detention, are strikingly similar. They all overwhelmingly come from backgrounds that are traditionally classified as disadvantaged.

“These are guys who have committed very serious crimes. If you committed a very serious crime when you were a very young person, by the time you're 10-12 years older than that you may be a different person entirely,” says Littlefield. “They often grew up in circumstances where educational opportunities were poor and their perception was that the only way to get anywhere was to get involved with selling drugs or with a gang.” The hopelessness of the justice system is what motivated Littlefield to begin tutoring. 

Littlefield became a Petey Greene tutor after retiring in 2018. He said he wanted to retire to something, rather than simply retiring from something. In his case, that meant retiring from a 30 year career in public radio and teaching English at Curry College. He decided to put his professor skills to work at MCI Concord, where he helps EPI students refine their writing skills, prepare for presentations, and study for exams, just as any college student would. The difference is that Littlefield cannot grade his students’ physical assignments outside of the prison. All paper has to be scanned and sent to him electronically, because no paperwork is allowed to leave the prison.

Littlefield says he sees similarities between the actions of his younger self and the actions that his students committed in their younger days that landed them in prison. “Some of [my actions] were so stupid and so dangerous that I count msyelf lucky that I got through it,” he says. “They didn't get lucky. They got caught. They were coming it at in certain stances that were hideous, escaping from those stances would have been heroic.” He says that ultimately, he and his students are the same. The difference is that his students were placed in the system. “There is no mechanism for recognizing that you’re not the same person when you’re 40 that you were when you were 19,” he says. 

“No one wants to be identified by the worst moment in their lives,” says Arthur Bembry, the Executive Director of Partakers, another organization that pairs volunteers with incarcerated students. “When you introduce education to someone who has been incarcerated, it gives them the opportunity to change their lives for the better.”

Partakers, a non-profit founded in 2007, has a volunteer mentoring program called “College Behind Bars”, which works to enhance the skills of inmates who are working towards a college degree. The program works with a volunteer base of over 300 people in Massachusetts in five prisons across the state. Bembury says this support is paramount in someone's success in obtaining their degree. Inmates who have gone through the program have seen a 2% recidivism rate, compared with the national recidivism rate of 63%. “Most people return to prison in a 36 month period without the kind of support we’re providing,” says Bembury. 

“If you don’t have access to these resources, it creates a subclass of citizenship,” says Bembury. "That's what breeds the cycle of recidivism.” The limitation on access to technology within prisons creates another layer of complication for people once they are released into society and are looking for jobs. “You can't have someone that’s incarcerated for 6 or 7 years. They're not looking at computers or tablets. They’re not part of the technological field that’s growing on the outside,” he says. “Then when they come home, you’re expecting them to exceed and get a job when they don’t know what excel or javascript is.”

Aside from the academic aspect, Littlefield says that education provides a social outlet to inmates that is perhaps just as important as the degree. “It's very important for people to come into the prison and treat them as human beings,” he says. “Rather than as pariahs or as hopeless cases or as people who are nothing more than prisoners.” Education aside, being treated like any other human being helps someone reintegrate into society post-incarceration, rather than being treated as a lost cause.

The class he is currently tutoring is studying genocide in Rwanda and Germany. “These guys have experiences which enable them to relate to prison camps, concentration camps and populations under attack that folks like me certainly don't have,” he says. For Littlefield, tutoring inmates is a learning experience, because he does not share the same lived experience as his students.

Petey Greene tutors receive funded training on how to appropriately enter the prison space in a respectful way. They are taught not to act as “saviors”, but simply as teachers. “We're not going in there to save anyone, we’re going in there to help them,” Johnson says.

Both Johnson and Littlefield agree that while tutoring with Petey Greene is rewarding, grappling with the injustices in the American prison system and interacting with those injustice at such an intimate level presents a moral dilemma. 

“Something I constantly come to battle with is should I be in a prison tutoring? Because I somehow see that as a way of upholding a system,” Johnson says. Both tutors take the abolitionist stance, and believe that the American Prison system as it is now needs to be done away with entirely. “There's a tension between working in a prison and wanting that prison to go away, to not exist anymore. I live with that daily,” says Littlefield.

“It helps people to reach a fuller potential” Bembruy adds. “We don't know why many people are in prison, we’re not trying to look at why they’re there. We just want to make sure that when you come home, you’re the best person you can be, that you have the opportunities and resources to make that happen.”

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