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Liberal Arts Education Comes to MA Prison

When it comes to prison education, most people tend to think of GED and vocational programs, but college programs are increasingly being offered behind bars — including liberal arts education.

A new program called the Emerson Prison Initiative (EPI) has launched at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord (MCI). The three-year, six-semester pilot program makes a liberal arts education accessible to inmates. In the third year, the program will be evaluated to determine its future.

“For the students inside, I hope that the class provides a means of intellectual engagement that allows them to seek out more, and to do their time better and in ways that are productive so that whether or not they will be released during their lifetime, they have the dignity of intellectual engagement,” said Mneesha Gellman, assistant professor and director of EPI.

Previously, MCI offered a GED program, and no other prison education programs, making EPI new and uncharted territory for this prison. It’s a golden opportunity for inmates, since as many aspects as possible of the liberal arts course are identical to the one Gellman teaches at Emerson College. However, there are some drawbacks. The classroom has only one computer, and there are limitations on what can be taken into the prison as teaching aides – let alone what multimedia information can been shown. Nonetheless, Gellman is determined to mirror her Emerson campus course as closely as possible within the prison walls.

“We’re trying to mirror the experience we offer our main campus students,” she said. “We wanted to have a freshman seminar that focuses on really learning how to do academic writing and college-level critical thinking.”

Although new, the program is already expanding. A grant from the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) that creates opportunities for incarcerated people to earn a Bard College degree during their sentence, will allow EPI to offer two additions classes in the spring of 2018. Ongoing fundraisers are planned to continue support of the program.

“Anytime we can do a partnership like (EPI), it’s beneficial to the inmates. The more educated an inmate becomes, the more likely they are to not recidivate,” Christopher Fallon, assistant deputy commissioner of communications at the Massachusetts Department of Corrections said. Amy Ansell, dean of liberal arts, also voice support of the program, saying, “A lot of programs in prison have been focused on having students come out and get jobs once they’re released from prison. This program is given to students who may never get out of prison. It’s much more about what the liberal arts can offer people no matter where they’re situated in terms of thinking about themselves and their world.”

Many believe that education is a right, not a privilege – and that means making education accessible to everyone, no matter what the barriers. For many, socio-economic status, the school-to-prison pipeline, remote rural living, poverty and incarceration pose major barriers to fair and accessible education. However, it doesn’t matter is the person is behind bars for life, chooses to live out his or her days in a remote mountain dwelling, lives in a tenement or resides in a palatial mansion – education benefits each individual, those that come into contact with them, and society at large. The EPI program understands this, and realizes that although some of the students in the program may ever experience life outside of jail again, access to education improves their lives and the lives of those around them.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington PostNew York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.

About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis, a writer currently incarcerated at FCC Petersburg (Medium), is an impassioned and active prison education advocate, a legal commentator, and a prolific writer of books, book reviews, and prison law articles. While living in federal prison at various security levels, retaliations for his activism have earned him long stretches in solitary, or "the hole." While in prison, he has earned numerous academic, legal, and ministerial credentials. Christopher is very knowledgeable about prison-related legal issues, prison policy, federal regulations, and case law. He is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014) and thePrison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). The Federal Prison Handbook is an IndieReader Discovery Awards winner. A regularly featured contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Prison Legal News, the nation's most prominent prison law publication, Christopher has enjoyed significant media exposure through appearances with the Wall Street Journal's Market Watch, Vice.com, Salon.com, In These Times, The Jeff McArthur Show, The Simi Sara Show,TheCommentary.ca, 88.9 WERS' award-winning "You Are Here" radio segment, and The Examiner. Other articles and book reviews appeared in The New York Journal of Books, the Kansas City Star, The Sacramento Bee, Blog Critics, Midwest Book Review, Basil and Spice, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, AND Magazine, Truth-Out.org, Rain Taxi, and the Education Behind Bars Newsletter, with content syndicated by the Associated Press, Google News, and Yahoo News. He established three websites: PrisonEducation.com, PrisonerResource.com, and ChristopherZoukis.com, and was a former editor of the Education Behind Bars Newsletter. In 2011, his fiction won two PEN American Center Prison Writing Awards for a screenplay and a short story. He taught a popular course on writing and publishing to over 100 fellow prisoners. Today Christopher is successfully working on a Bachelor's Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (Business/Law) from Adams State University. Following his 2016 graduation, he plans on attending Adams State University's MBA program. He regularly advises fellow prisoners and prison consultants about legal issues and federal regulations governing the Federal Bureau of Prisons operations. Upon release he plans to attend law school and become a federal criminal defense attorney. Christopher will not allow incarceration to waste his years or halt the progress of his life. He began his prison terms as a confused kid who made poor decisions but is today determined to create a better life. "We can't let the past define us," he says. "We have to do something today to make tomorrow what we want it to be."

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