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What do private colleges have to do with prisons?

The Peculiar Patriot (OCT 17-28) is amazing audiences throughout its Boston debut. Liza Jessie Peterson’s poetry and command of the stage communicate a story beyond the walls of any theatre and imparts on us a story often hidden below the surface. As we continue discussing mass incarceration, both nationally and within our state, it was important to discuss how ArtsEmerson and Emerson College are working to break down barriers and foster community. The Emerson Prison Initiative, an Emerson College initiative, is a groundbreaking organization that educates those behind bars, but also those of us who are not as familiar with the larger systemic issues at play, including access to education. Please enjoy the following guest post, written by EPI Director Mneesha Gellman, as we continue this dialogue.

Private education institutions in the US have traditionally served to further concretize class distinctions between groups of people, providing intellectual, social and ultimately economic opportunities for those with means to pay for them, while excluding those without the resources to access comparable information or networks. While financial aid and affirmative action policies, among other tools, have worked to diversify student bodies, private schools, from k-12 as well as college, nevertheless continue to serve a function in social division that plagues many educators.

The Emerson Prison Initiative (EPI) began in 2017 as a way to increase access to Emerson’s high quality college curricula for students traditionally marginalized from higher education. EPI admitted a cohort of twenty students at Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Concord in 2017 through a rigorous application process that included no standardized placement tests, but rather a timed essay in response to a liberal arts prompt, followed by in-person interviews. The first accepted cohort completed four credit-bearing classes in 2017-18, and students are making remarkable progress in honing academic skills not through remediation, but through high standards and access to Emerson resources, as well as additional tutoring through the Petey Greene Program, and mentorship through Partakers. Students and staff at Emerson’s Boston campus support EPI students in a number of ways, such as fulfilling research requests for EPI students in need of articles for assignments and helping coordinate events on campus to promote awareness about issues of incarceration.

The stereotypes of education for incarcerated people continue to be pervasive, and we work, through the agenda of EPI, to gently dismantle them. Well-meaning peers offer ideas about vocation training or professional development for EPI students, but this is not our central mission. Our mantra is, “equal education, equal objectives across campuses.”  The intention of EPI is to offer the same classes, including content, quality, and standards, for incarcerated MCI Concord students as we do for Boston-based students. We should trust that EPI students will benefit from developing the critical thinking and communication skills, the academic writing abilities and the wonder at the world that faculty try to foster in our Boston students.

Private colleges, through education in prison, can extend their commitment to promoting rigorous intellectual growth in students regardless of their circumstances. The same holistic qualities of knowing how to collaborate and also work independently, the ability to take criticism and learn from it, and the capacity to change one’s mind based on new information are important qualities for incarcerated students as well. For example, in social science this might look like the process of moving towards proof-based argument rather than feelings-based belief, and in the arts, of finding the language to convey how one relates to an ouvre or how to produce one – this is what EPI seeks to promote in students at Concord.

In sum, EPI’s intervention through an Emersonian education is to remind our community that everyone is worthy of higher education – going to prison shouldn’t disqualify someone from that right, nor should incarceration dumb college down. And moreover, higher education in prison offers a challenge to social hierarchy, from class stratification to the racial caste system in the US. It reminds us that education should not be merely a tool to reinforce privilege, but a space for self-transformation that can allow incarcerated students at any age and from any background, to see themselves as producers of knowledge, as agents in their own lives who have a voice capable of astute critique and commentary. EPI is committed to expanding the conversation about what education is and who it should be for.

The Peculiar Patriot is running at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box at the Emerson Paramount Center through OCT 28. To engage further in this discussion, join us for our public dialogue, Peculiar Patriotism, on OCT 22 at the African American Meeting House, with special guests Liza Jessie Peterson and the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department.

To learn more about The Emerson Prison Initiative, please visit their website by clicking here.


1 Comment

  1. We should support both the mission and the second chance they provide to so many in our state.


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