Emerson Prison Initiative to hold conference about the benefits of college in prison

By Maddie Khaw, Assistant News Editor

The Emerson Prison Initiative will hold its first conference Friday, featuring various speakers and panels discussing the statistics, benefits, and experiences of attending college in prison. 

The conference, to be held in the Bill Bordy Theater, will be open to local political actors and Emerson community members alike. The “action-packed day,” as EPI Director Mneesha Gellman described it, will kick off with a breakfast at 8:30 a.m., leading into several panel discussions and concluding with a film screening at 5 p.m.

EPI, launched in 2017, is a prison study program that offers individuals incarcerated at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord, commonly known as MCI-Concord, the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree from Emerson in media, literature, and culture. 

“The purpose of the conference is to bring people together in conversation about how to better support college in prison, and to demonstrate the impact of what it offers,” Gellman said in an interview with The Beacon. “We’re really hoping for some momentum about prioritizing college in prison in the Commonwealth.”

Other states, such as New York, California, and Minnesota, have garnered the “political will” to support college in prison programs on a wider scope, Gellman said. The conference aims to help propel movement towards the same end in Massachusetts.

EPI is one of five degree-granting programs for incarcerated individuals in the state, along with those offered by Tufts University, Boston University, Boston College, and Mount Wachusett Community College.

The conference is curated not only towards Emerson students, faculty, and staff, but also towards city and state policy makers, such as elected officials and legislators. The speakers and panels are organized to inform attendees about the benefits of college in prison, as well as the barriers preventing it and the possibilities to expand access.

“We want EPI to be really woven into the fabric of the college,” said EPI Assistant Director Cara Moyer-Duncan. “It’s a way of introducing EPI to the community and bringing everybody together to understand what it means to have college in prison.”

The conference will begin with a keynote address from Reginald Dwayne Betts, the founder and director of Freedom Reads, a not-for-profit organization installing libraries in prisons throughout the U.S. 

“He brings lived experience as someone directly affected by the carceral system, and he’s also a direct actor in trying to address the availability of educative materials for people who are still incarcerated,” Gellman said. 

Following the keynote address will be three panels, starting at 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3:15 p.m. The first panel will focus on data and research findings on college-in-prison programs, the second on testimonials from EPI students and alumni, and the third on leadership and how institutions can contribute to the work. The latter panel will include former college President M. Lee Pelton, two Massachusetts legislators, and a former Massachusetts senator and candidate for governor, Sonia Chang-Díaz. 

The conference will conclude with a screening of a one-hour compilation of the documentary “College Behind Bars” at 5 p.m. The documentary follows the work of the prison initiative at Bard College in New York, which EPI is modeled after, and offers a “more visceral sense of what it’s like to be an incarcerated college student,” Gellman said. 

Gellman hopes the conference will raise awareness of EPI’s overall mission, which is to “expand access to higher education for everyone, regardless of circumstance,” she said. “I want students, staff, and faculty to feel really proud of an institution that is playing a leading role in defining how to do a rigorous, high-quality, dignified college learning [program] in prison.”

All people deserve access to a high-quality education, a “fundamental right” that can be “personally transformative,” Moyer-Duncan said. 

“Access to high-quality education can be a form of justice for people who have historically been denied access,” she added.

College in prison programs benefit not only incarcerated individuals, but also surrounding communities, Moyer-Duncan continued, adding that research shows that access to higher education in prisons reduces recidivism rates.  

“We benefit when people successfully reenter society,” she said. “It improves their employment prospects, it improves their civic engagement. Think about it, who do you want to be your neighbor? For folks who have been incarcerated, do you want them to come out with a degree and a better understanding of themselves and the society that they live in, with good prospects for the future?”

Gellman said she understands the perspective of those who might be opposed to college in prison programs. Some people might be ignorant of the barriers preventing incarcerated individuals from attaining education and successfully reintegrating into society after being released, while others might wonder why individuals who are incarcerated for breaking the law should have access to free college, she said.

“There are people who will say, ‘People are in prison to be punished,’ and people are entitled to that perspective,” Gellman said. “[But] we look at people who are incarcerated as future neighbors, as people’s loved ones, as people who transgressed, and should have opportunities to change their lives. And college does that … I’m incredibly grateful to be part of an institution that is willing to think expansively about what college access for incarcerated people looks like.”