$13,000 grant to expand Emerson Prison Initiative

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Two faculty members teach two courses per semester at the institute. Courtesy of Emerson Prison Initiative.

By Nicole Poitras

The Emerson Prison Initiative received a $13,000 gift for more courses, educational materials, and students.

The Gardiner Howland Shaw Foundation donated funds to EPI, a program that brings courses taught by Emerson faculty to the Massachusetts Correctional Institute, Concord. Two faculty members teach a cohort of 16 students two courses per semester on MCI’s campus free of cost.

The Beacon reported that the college funds the basic cost to operate one course per semester at MCI Concord. EPI added two courses with the new funding. Founder and Director of EPI Mneesha Gellman wants to provide enough course offerings so that incarcerated students can earn an Emerson College liberal arts degree.

Earning a degree requires a minimum of 120 credits. Each completed course accounts for four credits. At this rate, it would take EPI students about seven years to earn a degree.

Provost Michaele Whelan said the college contributes roughly the same amount of funding as the grant given to EPI. Gellman said both contributions will fund the cost of supplies for incarcerated students and transportation for faculty.

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If the program receives more funding, in addition to money from the college and the grant, Gellman said a new cohort of students could be added.

This semester, Professors Joshua Polster and Keri Thompson will teach U.S. Theatre and Performance and Fundamentals of Speech Communication, respectively.

“I think the biggest area of growth that we have seen has been in increasingly robust course offerings,” Gellman said.

EPI wants to strengthen its presence on Emerson’s Boston campus, and EPI faculty are brainstorming ways for students to get involved, Gellman said.

Emerson professor Cara Moyer-Duncan taught Rainbow Nation? Race, Class, and Culture in South Africa at MCI Concord in the spring 2018 semester. She said students could perhaps get involved in the future as research assistants. Since the EPI students do not have access to the internet, research assistants could help with printing articles and collecting materials for when the incarcerated students have to write papers.

Additionally, EPI wants to educate students on the Boston campus about mass incarceration and why prisoners need higher education. 

“I think that we are taught in various ways to not think about people who are incarcerated. When we’re taught to think about them, it’s in very stereotypical or narrow ways that are dehumanizing,” Moyer-Duncan said. “We have to challenge that narrative.”

Senior Mason Bowles and sophomore Chesirae Barbano, visual media arts majors, created a promotional video for EPI at its inception in fall 2017.

Bowles said while he hopes to see more involvement on the Boston campus, he believes MCI Concord’s tight security limits the ways in which Boston students can help.

“I know logistical help is always needed—trying to get press about it to raise institutional support is really essential,” Bowles said.

MCI Concord students can fill out the same course evaluations as students on the Boston campus, except they complete their evaluations on paper instead of online. Gellman said feedback has been positive.

For students, the opportunity to be a college student while being incarcerated is really allowing them a window into the garden of their own minds, the garden of intellectual thought,” Gellman said.

President M. Lee Pelton and Whelan scheduled a visit MCI Concord in October to meet the current cohort.

“Everyone deserves access to education,” Moyer-Duncan said. “It should be a fundamental human right. People who are incarcerated have dreams, and desires, and ambitions, and skills, and abilities just like all of us … And so I would hope that as Emerson students learn about our prison initiative, that they really think about their fellow students in those ways.”

News editor Riane Roldan did not edit this article due to a conflict of interest.

Correction 09/29/2018: A previous version of this article wrote the college funds one EPI course. The wording may have sounded as if the college funds one course per year, not per semester. The same version also wrote that Gellman wanted to expand the cohort to 36 students when she is unsure of the exact number and adding another cohort is only a possibility. Students becoming resident assistants is also a possibility and not an official position. The article has been corrected to reflect these changes.

Correction 10/03/2018: A previous version of this article wrote that research assistants could help the incarcerated students write papers. Gellman said that research assistants can print articles and collect materials for the EPI students’ papers, but not that the assistants would actually help write the papers. The Shaw grant will allow for two additional courses, not one. Gellman said, with more funding, a new cohort of students could be added, but as of now, the current funds do not enable EPI to do this. The article has been corrected to reflect these changes.