Emerson Prison Initiative graduates first cohort of students

The+first+cohort+of+students+graduated+from+MCI-Concord+Sept.+27

Photo: Cara Moyer-Duncan

The first cohort of students graduated from MCI-Concord Sept. 27

By Maddie Khaw, Assistant Enterprise News Editor

On Mondays, Robb Eason’s entry to his classroom looks a little bit different than usual.

Instead of entering Walker or Tufte building and tapping his ID, the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies scholar-in-residence goes through a series of security measures. He empties his pockets, removes his socks and shoes, and is patted down by a security officer before being allowed through the halls to his classroom.

Eason, a philosophy professor, teaches a course to individuals incarcerated at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord (MCI-Concord), a medium-security men’s prison approximately 20 miles outside of Boston.

MCI-Concord is the site of the Emerson Prison Initiative (EPI), a program that allows incarcerated individuals to earn a bachelor’s degree in media, literature, and culture.

EPI was launched in 2017 after founder and director Mneesha Gellman, an associate professor from the Marlboro Institute, brought the idea to Emerson. At first, the program offered a few credit-bearing courses to incarcerated students. Eventually, the students were offered a pathway towards a bachelor’s degree composed of three courses in the fall and spring semesters and two in the summer, supplemented by study halls with volunteer tutors twice a week.

Now, five years later, EPI has graduated its first cohort of students, who were presented with their diplomas at a commencement ceremony at MCI-Concord on Sept. 27.

“EPI is about second chances and about the power of education—especially a high quality liberal arts education—to transform people’s lives,” Acting Director Cara Moyer-Duncan said. “We believe everybody deserves access to education, and that education can fundamentally transform someone’s life.”

Since its inception, the program has run two admissions cycles. The first cohort received 100 applicants, 20 of whom were accepted, giving the program a 20% acceptance rate, while the second cohort received 50 applicants and accepted the same amount, amounting to a 40% acceptance rate. 

Moyer-Duncan attributed the smaller applicant pool in the second cohort to a variety of reasons, including the pandemic, which limited EPI’s ability to meet with students and introduce them to the program.

Once accepted after a three-step admissions process including an application, essay, and in-person interview, the students at MCI-Concord are enrolled at Emerson. 

“They are Emerson College students, and their transcript looks just like the transcript of any other student on campus,” Acting Assistant Director Stephen Shane said. “I think that’s invaluable—to not only have their voices as part of our college and as part of our students, but also to show that Emerson is willing to invest in communities beyond the traditional campus model.”

The students in the first cohort who remain at MCI-Concord after graduation are enrolled in a noncredit economics course that Moyer-Duncan described as a “professionalization course,” in which they learn how to use laptops and the Microsoft Office Suite. The second cohort, meanwhile, can add a minor in economics and pursue a degree in media, literature, and culture.

While EPI does not stay in contact with individuals who are transferred to other prisons due to Department of Corrections policies, the program continues to support individuals who graduate from the program or exit the prison after completing their sentence.

EPI’s Re-entry and College Outside Program (RECOUP) provides resources to students who re-enter society after being released from prison. This support can come in different forms depending on each student’s needs, Moyer-Duncan said.

For students who exit the prison with degrees, RECOUP can aid in finding employment, housing, and food security, as well as opening a bank account and obtaining a driver’s license. If a student has not yet finished their degree, RECOUP helps with academic continuity, whether that means continuing the student’s education on Emerson’s Boston campus or at a different institution.

“We work with them to understand the best pathways towards continuing education for them,” Shane said. “That’s not the same for everybody. What do they want to study, what do they want to continue working towards, and how can we help them do that?”

Some students, in the midst of earning their degree, are moved by the Department of Corrections from MCI-Concord’s medium-security status to Northeastern Correctional Center, a minimum-security facility, where they are still able to work towards their degrees and receive academic support.

“We wanted to make sure that if they get classed down to minimum-security prisons, they can still make progress towards their degree,” Moyer-Duncan said.

Because the program is funded by the college, outside grants, and individual donors, EPI students do not pay tuition. Moyer-Duncan said the program’s courses are equivalent to those taught on Emerson’s main campus in terms of rigor and content.

“That is really important to the integrity of the program,” Moyer-Duncan said. “The students are highly capable. They’re very, very engaged.”

Professors at EPI are instructed to conduct their courses in the same way they are taught on the main campus, Eason said.

“It’s not like this class is tailored to the [students] in a way that makes it less than a course I would teach at Emerson,” Eason said. “Not at all. In fact, I think they may even have a slightly more challenging class, insofar as they can’t reach out to me easily for extra help.”

Technology is the main area in which EPI courses differ from other Emerson ones, as students and instructors at MCI-Concord don’t have internet access. While students on Emerson’s Boston campus use personal laptops to access course resources at any time, EPI students can contact their instructors only within the two hours and 45 minutes during which they meet once each week.

Eason said that while the lack of internet poses a challenge, his experience teaching at EPI this semester has been “wonderful.”

“The classroom is the most lively classroom I’ve ever taught in,” he said. “This is a class where every student is eager to be involved in speaking and talking and getting feedback. It’s really incredible.”

Moyer-Duncan, who taught for EPI before moving into the acting director position, shared a similar experience, describing her classroom as a “wonderfully vibrant space.”

“It was just the most alive, dynamic teaching experience I’ve ever had,” Moyer-Duncan said. “The engagement of the students was really phenomenal.”

Shane, who taught a research writing course for EPI in 2019, also noted how impressed he was by the work ethic of the students. He recalls arriving to a classroom full of students who had not only done the reading for homework, but had read it multiple times and already discussed it among themselves.

“Students in the prison initiative are the hardest working students I’ve ever had the privilege to work with,” Shane said. “That’s not knocking the work ethic of students on the Boston campus, it’s just recognizing that the students there work incredibly hard.”

Not only do EPI students bring effort and determination to their academics, Shane said, but they do so in the “incredibly oppressive setting” of a medium-security prison.

“It makes me feel very grateful and privileged as an instructor,” he said. “Also, it keeps me on my toes, because I’ve got to make sure I’m challenging those students when they come to class prepared to challenge me.”

On Emerson’s Boston campus, Shane currently teaches the EPI co-curricular course, a one credit, non-tuition class in which students learn about mass incarceration and higher education within the prison system. This semester, 10 students are enrolled in the class.

Students in the co-curricular course also participate in service projects in conjunction with EPI. Past students researched the stances of Massachusetts representatives on incarceration-related issues, reached out to representatives to advocate for incarcerated individuals, and transcribed a novel handwritten by an EPI student.

“I’ve seen students reaching out who are interested in [the co-curricular course]. They want to learn more about it,” Shane said. “It’s important the college and the student body understand the impact and the importance of a program like this, and I’m really glad that students seem to be embracing it and are excited about it.”

Ana Luque, a sophomore journalism major, took the EPI co-curricular course last semester. As an international student from Honduras, she said she found the class especially thought provoking.

“I think I learned a lot,” Luque said. “I did learn about the prison system in the United States and how different it is from my country, but also how it affects everyone in the United States.”

Luque said the class changed her perspective on the prison system.

“We have such a limited understanding of the prison system based on what we’re shown in the media,” she said. “Once you start digging in deep, you get frustrated. You [realize] this is really unfair, this is not a system that is looking for rehabilitation of people.”

She added that she believes every Emerson student should take the course at some point.

“There’s a lot of things you can learn from it, and a lot of things that are affecting you, despite you not knowing,” she said. “Even if it does not directly affect you, you should at least have some compassion to learn about what happens to other people that are not part of your community.”

While Luque argued for all Emerson students to take the co-curricular, Eason made an even broader call: for all colleges and universities to implement a program like EPI.

“I just can’t imagine how the country would be different and better if every higher education institution did this also, as part of what their mission is,” Eason said. “I just think it’s incredible. It really just feels like an important thing to do.”