College in Prison Changed Them. Now They Want to Change Minds

TUPIT students, including the first Tufts class to earn their bachelor’s degrees behind bars, celebrate the program that turned them on to civic responsibility

Shane wheeled the yellow mop bucket to the side of the corridor, out of the way of the other imprisoned men. At the medium security facility where he is in year 25 of his life-without-parole sentence, he works as a janitor. His job has him looking at the floors, but at that moment, he was thinking about the stars. 

From his pocket, he took a bundle of small papers and photos held together with a rubber band. He extracted three index cards—the feedback his instructors had given him weeks ago on his final project for astronomy class, a poem about the ways scientists use light to obtain knowledge about the universe. 

Why was he still carrying the cards? “For inspiration,” he said. 

In January, Shane (last name withheld for privacy) was one of 10 students to graduate from Tufts University with a bachelor’s degree he earned while in prison at Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord. It took five years and all the inspiration he could get. Sure, many who knew him as a teen would be shocked to hear he’s a college grad. Others say he only needed the opportunity. 

“My sister said she has always seen it in me,” Shane said. “I just had a lot of distractions.”

While the Department of Correction offers vocational education in fields like barber training and culinary arts, its partnership with the Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College (TUPIT) is dedicated to the idea that higher education in the liberal arts can transform people in ways that other rehabilitation programs can’t. Access to college courses, Shane said, is “one of the most valuable things that has happened to this prison system” in that it has given him and his classmates “comprehensive ways of really looking at the world.”

TUPIT’s executive director, Hilary Binda, AG03, founded the program in 2016 when she brought 10 Tufts undergraduates into MCI-Shirley for a literature class with 10 incarcerated people. More courses, like biology and philosophy, followed. Within two years, the program was centered at MCI-Concord with enough students earning college credit that TUPIT could offer them an associate degree through Bunker Hill Community College. 

With Tufts faculty teaching courses of the same rigor they offered on the Medford/Somerville campus, the question became: Why isn’t this a Tufts degree?

Jody Boykins sits in a subway car

Jody Boykins prepared for class during the T ride to Tufts from one of his two jobs in Boston.

Many college-in-prison programs exist across the country, some run by elite institutions like Tufts. But while other universities offer prisoners a continuing education degree, or a degree through a partnering state school, or a separate degree created just for the incarcerated, few give bachelor’s degrees that are identical to those that its traditional students receive on the outside.

In 2021, the Tufts Arts and Sciences faculty voted unanimously to offer the incarcerated students a chance to earn a bachelor’s in civic studies, the degree that Shane and the rest of the first cohort received this year.   

That the Tufts degree, a partnership between the School of Arts and Sciences and Tisch College, is centered on civic studies is unique among prison programs—and intentional. It draws on the university’s commitment to civic education while also reflecting research in the field. In 2017, for a qualitative study, Binda and her Tufts colleagues interviewed previously incarcerated men who had taken college courses while in prison. They heard three things over and over: that the students felt more confident in their abilities, more connected to other people, and, notably, more responsible to the world beyond themselves. They were starting careers in health care, criminal law, education, and nonprofits with a focus on low-income communities.

Binda hears the same when she asks students about what they want to do when they get out of prison: “I want to make sure that the kids who are out there now have the resources I didn’t have.” “I want to change the way people making the policies understand the issues.”

The takeaway? That with the right knowledge and skills, people who were once considered a drain on society could become not just active contributors, but civic leaders.

Jody Boykins and Hilary Binda

Binda asked her students to encourage Boykins to sign up for the program. He finally gave in. “That was the start of the rest of my life,” he said. “It was hope when there was nothing left … a sense of vision when you are blind.”

Binda first became interested in prison education as a high school teacher in Rhode Island, where some of her students were cycling in and out prison. During visits she found they had trouble picturing a future that was different from their pasts. After earning her PhD in English from Tufts and joining the faculty as a senior lecturer, Binda applied for a Tufts grant that would allow her to offer liberal arts classes to incarcerated people, with the aim of helping to foster the critical thinking and self-reflection skills that would help them envision a new path. 

That goal was at the back of Binda’s mind one February afternoon this year at MCI-Concord as 17 men took their seats in her English class. Binda started with an ice breaker, asking the students to pair up and share something with their partner that people might find surprising about them. Afterward, they reported back to the class: “Erving has a black belt in karate.” “Alex did ballet as a child.”

The students come to know each other well as they work toward their degrees. This relationship-building lays the civic cornerstone of appreciating others’ points of view. It’s also an antidote to the policies of separation and isolation that the penal system uses to keep order and maintain safety, Binda said, and to the men’s tendency to keep to themselves for their own protection while inside.

“I’ve had many students say to me, ‘I’ve known him for 25 years, I grew up on his street, and I never knew he was like that,’” Binda said.

The class analyzed the day’s assigned readings, which included an essay by Walter Benn Michaels on whether diversity is a cure for racism or just an end run. The TUPIT students were hungry to talk as they applied the essay to racial divisions in the prison. One student, Omar, said that he was invited by another member of the cohort to be his cell mate, recognizing they both might want to stay up late to study. He got pushback from his Latino peers. “They said, ‘You’re going to make it acceptable to be cellies with Black people.’” 

College in prison, Binda said later, facilitates these small changes in outlook “that can lead to big changes in the prison system and in the communities to which people return home.”

During the class, Timothy, who earned his bachelor’s degree in January and has since volunteered as Binda’s unofficial teaching assistant, filled out name tags and passed out papers. Since college classes came to MCI-Concord, he said, prison is different. It’s a remarkable thing, he said, “getting men who are in a culture where you have to be macho-masculine to stand up and do soliloquies from Shakespeare.” 

The change has gone beyond the 42 men taking the classes at Concord, he said. Instead of pulp novels that read like action movies, they read books with complex themes. And when they talk in the yard about what they’ve read, others listen. 

“It’s infectious in the best way possible,” he said. “Every conversation is a chance to pass that on.”

As the class broke up, another student, Keon, stepped forward, a serious expression on his face. He needed to convey how important the TUPIT program has been to him, particularly Binda and the other faculty. “They make you feel seen,” he said, “not talking to you in ways that are belittling you.” 

Like any students, TUPIT students interpret every academic subject through their own experiences, Binda said, which means that a sociology reading might lead to a discussion of ‘gang life.’ “And as professors, we’re saying ‘We’re interested in learning from you too. What you have lived and what you know has tremendous value.” 

 

Hilary Binda and Jody Boykins walk on campus

Binda and Boykins walk to the class on Storytelling for Social Change.

While the incarcerated students go through exams, essays, and interviews to compete for a spot in the TUPIT program, AP classes and SAT scores aren’t something they bring to the table. Some people doubt that prisoners have the academic ability to earn a Tufts degree.

Binda counters that while most TUPIT students didn’t have the resources that would prepare them for college in a standard academic sense, “they all bring a different kind of intelligence” and “a fierce dedication” to make the most of this opportunity, which sets them up to succeed in the program.

Tufts lecturer Andrew West saw this in his science class last semester. Most of the TUPIT students found his first exam a challenge, which didn’t surprise him, considering some haven’t taken algebra in decades. But they soon caught on. 

Their final projects left West with no doubt that these students could hold their own with the ones he teaches on campus. One performed a poem that synthesized—accurately—the principles they had covered in the course, rapping about Newton’s and Kepler’s laws, even keeping his flow as he wrote equations on the white board. One turned the course’s themes into artwork; without access to paint, he scrounged things like M&Ms to make pigment. 

West and his TAs watched the presentations with amazement. “All three of us were like, ‘What did we just witness?’”

West may have joined TUPIT as a contribution to social justice, but he thinks he made out in the deal, getting to lead the kind of class every educator hopes for. “I had 10 people who wanted to be there, who were super engaged, who asked amazing questions, who were ready to work their butts off,” he said. 

Everyone who touches the TUPIT program seems to come away energized. Rebecca Sewall, J87, one of several Tufts alums who volunteer for TUPIT, was surprised by the enthusiasm of Jims, the student she mentors. She remembered one sociology reading they went over: She had absorbed enough to understand the main argument, whereas Jims could articulate all the author’s points with full command. 

“That’s emblematic of how he approaches this whole experience, like this is a huge opportunity that he has really thrown himself into,” she said. “That to me is inspiring and refreshing—and reminds me of how many learning opportunities I’ve squandered.”

But do incarcerated people deserve this shot at higher learning? “People have a right to an education,” said Binda, especially those whose lives were ravaged not just by economic insecurity, unsafe neighborhoods, and systemic racism but “by a lack of access to education and the opportunities it creates.” 

In class, the students take responsibility for crimes they have committed while at the same time studying the social factors that lead to crime. “And this sense of accountability grows as people read and learn and listen,” Binda said. “Our students come to understand ways that they, too, were harmed by the culture of violence they grew up in. The phrase ‘hurt people hurt people; healed people heal people’ has a powerful hold on many of our students.” 

The desire to change the cycle for others, she said, “is a big part of why so many of these people, once they are home, are finding jobs that enable them to give back and help repair this society.”

Jody Boykins listens in class

Jody Boykins was released from prison in November. That same day, he made it to the Tufts campus for class.

For some, the most compelling argument in favor of prison education is fiscal. A study of female offenders in New York State found that 30% percent of those released from prison returned to custody within three years, but the recidivism rate for those who took college classes while in prison was less than 8%. And less time in prison saves the state money. According to a RAND Corporation study, “For every dollar invested in prison education programs, you’re saving taxpayers between $4 to $5 in re-incarceration costs, and that’s a conservative estimate.”

For its part, the TUPIT program is supported almost entirely by donations and grants, with the university waiving tuition costs. 

To keep the recidivism rate as low as possible, TUPIT developed the Tufts Educational Re-entry Network, or MyTERN. It helps the newly released with employment, housing, technology training, financial literacy, and emotional support while enabling students to continue their education in civic studies. On the Tufts campus, they take courses designed for them like Policy, Politics and Advocacy and Storytelling for Social Change. They also tell their own stories at schools and at community events, honing their skills as activists and civic leaders. 

A MyTERN centerpiece is classes that traditional students and the formerly incarcerated take together. Walls come down as they share their radically different life experiences, but also discover what they have in common, Binda said. 

One such course, called Literatures of Justice, met in a classroom in Tisch Library in the fall. In a class just before Thanksgiving, students talked and laughed together over some pre-class pizza, but things turned pensive when Binda had them share their thoughts on the upcoming holiday. 

Some would be going home to see their parents. Others, too far from home to journey for the short break, were missing their families. For Jody Boykins, who completed a sentence just two weeks prior, it would be his first Thanksgiving out of prison since 2017, and the question of family was complicated. “I don’t talk to my cousins for a reason,” he said. “We are living different lives.” 

For many, joining TUPIT means severing old ties, whether to the drug business or to gang life and its rules of reprisal. Later, Boykins talked about a course he had taken inside called The Apology.

“That class changed my life,” he said. “It taught me that you cannot ask for forgiveness if you are not willing to give it. It helped me look into the eyes of the man who killed my uncle 17 years ago. I met up with that guy in a state prison yard and I found the nerve to listen to him.” 

Re-entry to society is a struggle, even with supports like MyTERN, but Boykins was committed. The same day of his release in November, he made it to Medford for class. By February, he would have a 3.95 GPA, be starting a job at a Boston soup kitchen, and thinking about summer courses.

The day after the graduation ceremony, the TUPIT students heard unsettling news: The state announced plans to close the aged MCI-Concord facility before the summer—a surprise to many, including Binda. She worked quickly with the Department of Correction to ensure her students would stay together, locating a new base for TUPIT at MCI-Shirley.

At about the same time, the students got another shock, one that offered a jolt of hope for several of them. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a ruling that banned life-without-parole for people who were under 21 at the time of their crime, a first in the nation. 

“We have seven students currently who may have thought they would never leave prison,” Binda said, “and now they have a chance for parole.”

Shane, the janitor, is one of them. If he gets out, he hopes to stay in academia. 

“It seems counter-intuitive to put trust in people that are incarcerated,” he said, but that trust is transformative, and will lead them “to live in harmony and contribute to humanity in responsible and surprising ways.”

Interested in supporting the expansion of the MyTERN re-entry program? Visit the Tufts Crowdfunding site to make a gift to TUPIT

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