Grads, professors discuss Emerson Prison Initiative


Anna Brenner

EPI alum discuss their experiences at the conference.

By Maddie Barron, Magazine Editor & Assistant Opinion Editor

The Emerson Prison Initiative held its first conference on Friday in the Bill Bordy Theater.

The program, which offers incarcerated persons at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord to take college courses and receive a bachelor’s degree in media, literature, and culture, is headed by professor Mneesha Gellman and saw its first graduating class last year.

The discussion, promoting “innovation in access and equity for incarcerated people,” was introduced by Interim President Bill Gilligan.

“We believe in the importance of taking affirmative steps to address structural inequities by making higher education more accessible and equitable,” Gilligan said during his speech. “EPI has the potential to make a real difference in the lives of EPI students and in our society.” 

Gellman, in her remarks, emphasized the importance of removing barriers to higher education and applauded the cohort of graduates. She said she hopes to live in a world where public safety does not rely on punishment-oriented solutions to crime.

“As long as people are incarcerated, EPI is committed to … making the harshness of the world a little more bearable,” Gellman said. 

The keynote address was given by Reginald Dwayne Betts, a lawyer and poet who was a 2021 MacArthur Fellow for his organization, Freedom Reads

Betts, who was incarcerated before going to community college, and eventually, Yale Law School, said people in prison are desperate for education, taking advantage of every available opportunity they come across.

If programs like EPI had existed, Betts said, he might have found a “root hold in this space that says that [he] matter[s].” 

In his speech, Betts recalled the words given to him by a courtroom judge in 1996. 

“I am under no illusion that sending you to prison will help you, but you can get something out of it, if you choose,” Betts cited. 

He learned Spanish, built friendships, wrote poetry, and studied law. Betts said he did what he could to become something after prison, despite it being difficult. 

Making college in prison a priority of the criminal justice system, and available within every state correctional facility, is essential to changing lives, said Betts. His own was “radically transformed” by simply opening a book and being able to have conversations about difficult subjects with fellow inmates. 

A panel analyzing the research findings on the effects of college in prison took place after Betts’ keynote speech. 

Panel participants included Kurtis Tanaka, a senior program manager for Ithaka S+R, Sally Davidson, an Emerson College affiliated faculty member with EPI and economist, and Dyjuan Tatro, alumnus of the Bard Prison Initiative

Davidson shared findings from the U.S. Department of Labor that determined in 2021 the average weekly income by educational attainment is $1,334 for people with bachelor’s degrees, $809 for people with a high school diploma, and only $290 for formerly incarcerated individuals. 

Beyond providing access to education, Davidson said, there must be efforts to integrate formerly incarcerated people into the workforce. 

“They face significant barriers to employment, even with a college degree. Many employers are reluctant to hire formerly incarcerated people,” she said. 

Despite continued obstacles post-incarceration, Davidson said the data provides an optimistic window into the future. 

“The odds of obtaining employment if you have correctional education … is 13 percent higher than the odds of finding employment if you have not had correctional education,” she said, according to a reincorporation analysis between employment and participation in correctional education.

The panel ended with a discussion on re-incarceration and the availability of support for formerly incarcerated people by Dyjuan Tatro. 

“I spent 12 years in prison, Tatro said. “After 12 years, the state gave me $40 and a bus ticket and told me ‘good luck.’ We don’t have a system that is facilitating success; we have a system that is perpetuating failure.”

EPI alumni Mac Hudson, David Baxter, John Yang, and Ahmad Bright spoke during a panel to provide testimonials of what access to higher education in prison did for them.

Hudson said he learned how the prison system operated because of his education from EPI. Attending college in prison exposed him to many discussions and debates that helped him unearth the roots of the flawed system he was tied to. 

“In order to fight something successfully, you have to know how to fight it,” Hudson said. 

Each panelist emphasized how valuable the EPI community was and continues to be. Yang, Hudson, and Bright all described the group of cohorts as brothers who each helped the other through the difficult journey of correctional education. 

A roundtable event took place after, with President of the Boston Foundation and former Emerson College President M. Lee Pelton, Massachusetts Sen. Jamie Eldridge, Rep. Mary Keefe, and former Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, discussing what more can be done to support criminal justice reform on the legislative and university-based level.  

“[I would] scale up the number of college prison programs across Massachusetts and create a network that would allow students wherever they are to participate in college in prison programs,” Pelton said.