Tufts Expands Commitment to Prison Education

The new program, in collaboration with Bunker Hill Community College, offers prisoners at MCI-Concord a chance to earn a college degree

Hilary Binda, AG03, believes in the human capacity to observe, question, and reflect—in short, to learn and grow—at any stage of life. Binda, founder of the Tufts University Prison Initiative of the Tisch College (TUPIT), has seen that capacity firsthand in teaching a literature class to incarcerated men.

“Students in prison have intellectual curiosity that is off the charts and an incredible drive to learn and teach others,” she said. “That’s part of the joy of teaching inside. There is also a radical diversity of skill and experience among students.”

Now, through a new collaboration with Bunker Hill Community College, Tufts in January is expanding its commitment to that potential for learning and growth through a program that offers incarcerated men at MCI-Concord the chance to earn a college degree. Students who pass all twenty-three courses by the end of the program in May 2022 will be granted an associate’s degree in the liberal arts from Bunker Hill Community College.

>>> Help support the Tufts University Prison Initiative of the Tisch College with a crowdfunding campaign—it ends April 30.

The four-year pilot brings college-level coursework, mostly taught by Tufts professors, to up to twenty-three men, though Binda hopes the program will become ongoing. The program builds on Tufts’ already developing relationship with Bunker Hill Community College, one pathway for students who wish to apply to Tufts’ Resumed Education for Adult Learners (REAL) program.  

“The powerful dedication to the program, even within an extraordinarily challenging learning environment, creates a truly magical learning community,” said Binda. “It becomes a kind of home for people within the prison, and, for many, the basis of a new way of thinking about oneself, one’s life and future.”

By focusing on the critical and creative thinking skills that come with a rigorous liberal arts program, Binda said the program “gives people a sense of possibility where they didn’t see possibility before. One of the gifts of education is to learn to be analytical, to step back and reflect on oneself and one’s environment. At Tufts I’ve taken those skills for granted in our students, but they are skills that have been fostered,” she said.

“Not everyone has this opportunity, especially when you are forced to live in survival mode in traumatizing circumstances. As learned skills that can be taught, analysis and reflection are perhaps the most useful in helping incarcerated students shape their futures—they make a difference in determining whether people end up back in prison or in graduate school,” Binda said. “Society doesn’t make re-entry easy for those fortunate enough to be released, but we know we can make it less difficult through education.”

The More Education, the Lower the Recidivism Rate

Evidence shows that education affects the outcome of men and women who are released from prison; without an education, their prospects for well-paying jobs are limited, compounding other problems, including access to housing and regaining family connections. Without a range of options available to them, the formerly incarcerated often wind up back in prison. According to a 2013 study by the RAND Corporation, inmates who participate in any education programs are 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who don’t. When it comes to people who participate in higher education and earn a degree, the return-to-prison rate is almost zero, said Binda.

“When you are in prison and can be successful in educational endeavors and experience the joy of learning—it’s transformative,” said Binda, who directs the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program and teaches in American Studies and in the Visual and Critical Studies Department of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts. “These students can go on to bring increased confidence and curiosity and sense of self-efficacy into everything that they’re doing. It dramatically changes the way they look at the world and their own capacity to affect it when they leave prison.”

Tufts is working closely with Bunker Hill to develop a curriculum that meets the community college’s academic requirements and that draws on Tufts faculty expertise in literature, biology, history, math, drama, music, genetics, public health, art, environmental studies, nutrition, and religion, among other disciplines.

As a way of training Tufts faculty and introducing incarcerated students to college and Tufts, over the past two semesters Binda has brought twenty-six professors from several different schools of the university to prison every Friday to give a lecture-discussion as part of the Tufts Conversations series.

Fernando Ona, a clinical associate professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at the School of Medicine, is one of the faculty members who will be teaching in the program next year. He will lead coursework and discussions around health and human rights, specifically around narratives that involve recovery from trauma and torture. 

“I feel proud to engage with a spectrum with students with diverse and deep experiences,” Ona said. “It’s important, as part of my work transforming conflict, to engage with actions that lift our world up in a different way and provide hope where there may be intractable suffering. It’s an honor to be able to use my interests to help to establish a learning community that lifts our academic world into a different space. To me, Hilary’s vision is about re-imaging the future.”

Binda said the program has been in development for three years as part of expanding the reach of TUPIT, which was launched about a year and a half ago with support from both the Office of the Provost and primarily the Tisch College of Civic Life, where Binda is now a senior fellow. In addition to offering the degree program, TUPIT will continue to offer courses to incarcerated people in combination with Tufts students, undergraduate and graduate.

That curriculum is modeled on standards established by the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Inside-Out Exchange Program, which brings college students and incarcerated students together in prisons. Binda rolled out the program with the Tufts-accredited Inside-Out course, Mass Incarceration and the Literature of Confinement, first taught at MCI-Shirley, then at Souza-Baranowski, a maximum-security facility, and now at MCI-Concord.

Tufts students will also participate in the degree program for incarcerated students through participation in the Tufts chapter of Petey Greene, a national organization that trains and facilitates college students tutoring in correctional facilities. Additionally, some graduate students and Tufts staff are already part of mentor teams coordinated by Partakers.

Research also plays a pivotal role in the program. Binda is continuing to work with Carolyn Rubin, an assistant professor of public health and community medicine at the School of Medicine, Jill Weinberg, an assistant professor of sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences, and Kim Dong, a research assistant professor of public health and community medicine at the School of Medicine on a study involving interviews with formerly incarcerated people who had college experience in prison. In addition, the research team is studying the impact of the TUPIT program to help with program assessment.

“We know from our first study and from others that having a college degree does break down barriers in terms of gaining access to middle class jobs, and it also opens doors to the possibility of continuing your education,” said Binda. “We’ve also found that educational success is less about the acquisition of facts and more about the sense of self that emerges from the process itself—specifically the sense of self that emerges from positive relationships with the professor, with peers, and even with the correctional staff. Once these students embarked on life outside prison, they brought a new sense of confidence and self-worth with them.”

Tufts has established itself as a frontrunner in Massachusetts in seeing education as inherently linked to prison reforms and re-entry support. It is, in partnership with Bunker Hill, one of the four anchor prison education programs that form the new Mass Prison Education Consortium (MPEC), along with MIT, Boston University, and Mount Wachusett Community College. The consortium, announced in September, is spearheaded by the Educational Justice Institute at MIT and funded with a $250,000 grant from the Vera Institute of Justice and from the Mellon Foundation.

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