Prison Initiative professor encourages participation at panel discussion

Mneesha+Gellman+invited+several+of+her+colleagues+to+speak+at+a+panel+on+the+Emerson+Prison+Initiative.+Faith+Bugenhagen+%2F+Beacon+Correspondent

Mneesha Gellman invited several of her colleagues to speak at a panel on the Emerson Prison Initiative. Faith Bugenhagen / Beacon Correspondent

By Faith Bugenhagen

Founder and Director of Emerson’s Prison Initiative Mneesha Gellman invited three colleagues to the college Oct. 18, to urge Emerson students to become more involved within the initiative. 

Gellman organized the panel to encourage participation in Emerson’s Prison Initiative, which enrolled 20 incarcerated men at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute as full time Emerson students in the fall of 2017. 

The inmates are educated in a liberal arts curriculum by professors who volunteer to teach in the program. 

The panel included various stakeholders in the prison educational system such as Arthur Bembury, executive director of Partakers, a coordinating company that organizes volunteers who mentor the inmates involved in educational programs through Emerson, Tufts University and Boston University.

“I think there is a commitment by the college to address educational inequality and inaccessibility, and EPI addresses this as a model of civic engagement,” Gellman said during an interview after the discussion. 

We stand for community, fact-based journalism. What do you stand for?

Some things in life are essential; they touch us every single day. Good journalism is one of those things. It keeps us in the know as we hurry through our busy lives.

Gellman said the EPI’s mission is to introduce a higher level of education to the inmates, with the hope that a college degree will give them the foundation to get back onto their feet. 

“Emerson College is a privileged institution.” she said during the panel. “We have access to a lot of resources here that are totally denied to people who are incarcerated and we know here that education is transformative, so the initiative here is to provide access to people from this marginalized background.”

Gellman created the initiative to introduce the opportunity for higher education and to create a foundation that could help inmates after their incarceration. 

During the discussion, Bembury emphasized the need for education to transcend the classroom.

“We are not trying to look at why someone is in prison, we are trying to figure out how you can be the best person when you come out of prison, and we have the resources to do so,” Bembury said.

Bill Littlefield, a former professor at Curry College, spent the past year teaching the prisoners and attended the panel discussion.

“[The inmates] are smart, sharp, extremely sophisticated,” he said. “Their sense of humor is extraordinary, I enjoy being with them for three plus hours a week.”

Littlefield said his only struggle was balancing between recognizing the prison system’s flaws and contributing to the system because of his work. 

“The tension is between working in the prison and wanting it to go away,” Littlefield said. 

Lizzie L’Massie, a graduate student pursuing a Master’s degree in Theatre Education with a concentration in multicultural studies, attended the talk and said she wanted to hear more about the prevention of getting to the point of imprisonment, rather than participating in the system to assist inmates behind bars . 

“I am glad that they were talking about fixing the issue, but I feel like another big issue is how we are getting to this point,” L’Massie said. 

Gellman said she plans to grow the initiative to include more students and introduce additional technology to the courses. The program faced struggles before acquiring school materials such as accessible technology due to the rigid limitations the prison facility poses on the class. The professors have been told that they were not allowed to provide paper to the inmates during their courses. 

“Being involved in conversations around mass incarceration is really a civic duty, because we are all participating in a world that includes prisons where people are incarcerated, that are often forgotten or ignored, or treated as an invisible population,” Gellman said.