By Nadira Wicaksana
FSU joined the Massachusetts Prison Education Consortium (MPEC), an organization established by MIT to provide postsecondary education to people currently and formerly in prison statewide, according to a Sept. 5 University press release.
The Vera Institute of Justice, along with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, awarded a $250,000 grant to MIT over the course of three years to fund MPEC’s creation. MPEC is comprised of both two- and four-year educational institutions.
Other consortium members include similar statewide programs, such as the Petey Greene Program, as well as law enforcement agencies, according to a Vera Institute press release.
The effort is led by the MIT Experimental Study Group and involves 13 institutions, including Boston University, Harvard University, and Mount Wachusett Community College. Framingham State is the only state university involved in MPEC.
The move to join the consortium follows the University’s involvement in the international Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, started by Temple University professor Lori Pompa in 1997. The program allows college students to take courses alongside inmates in a correctional facility.
Professors Deborah McMakin, Paul Bruno, and Martel Pipkins have been involved with the program since the inception of the University’s own Inside-Out at FSU program in the spring of 2014. The initiative was initially spearheaded by former FSU criminology professor Daisy Ball.
Bruno said FSU’s involvement in the Inside-Out program led to its recognition by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, which sent emails in the spring of 2017 inviting every professor teaching in the program to meetings regarding the lack of access to higher education in prisons.
“It’s funny how these things happen,” Bruno said of the timing. “It’s just happenstance ... it was a little bit of luck.”
The following semester, the professors attended meetings with professors from schools such as MIT and Tufts University, which had also begun to implement their own programs within correctional facilities.
MIT Professor Lee Perlman, part of MIT’s Experimental Study Group, was asked by the Vera Institute for Justice to apply for the grant, according to Bruno. Because of MIT’s relative newness to prison education programs, Perlman decided to apply as a consortium.
According to Bruno, part of the grant money will be used to employ an administrator, Carole Cafferty, at MIT, whose job will be “to keep track of all the education that’s going on in the prisons.”
Bruno added the money will allow FSU to “continue doing what we’ve been doing all along. In terms of Framingham State, we’re not going to change anything, except for the fact that we will be ... informing the consortium what we’re doing.”
Bruno said, “We are a leader insofar as we grant credit to incarcerated students. We’re positioned in such a way that we’re considered a kind of model.”
He added some of the other participating MPEC institutions do not grant credit, but one of the
consortium’s goals is to follow in Framingham State’s footsteps.
“Many of the faculty involved in this want to see their institutions move toward credit-bearing courses,” Bruno said.
Through the Inside-Out program, FSU has already established partnerships with the Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI) in Framingham, as well as the Middlesex Jail and House of Corrections in Billerica.
Every semester, ten students take courses at MCI-Framingham, according to McMakin. The courses are in the humanities and social sciences, according to Bruno and McMakin.
“We do a very traditional Greek drama class – we do a lot of Sophocles, ‘Oedipus Rex,’” Bruno said. “I’ve started every class by using Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The idea of the allegory is that we’re all in a prison, that this world is a prison.”
Bruno said the teaching environment provides opportunities for students to challenge any
preconceived notions they might have about inmates.
“In some ways, teaching a[n Inside-Out] class is like teaching a class anywhere,” Bruno said. “And then are times where ethical questions come up that make it a really interesting conversation with, you know, people who have been sentenced to prison for something that they’ve done.”
McMakin, whose background is in education, said the opportunity to teach incarcerated people shaped her teaching methods as a whole.
“It provides unbelievable opportunities to confront implicit biases and assumptions,” McMakin said.
She added, “One thing I often hear students say is, ‘I will never have this opportunity again.’ And that’s why students are so driven to do it.”
McMakin said she believes both the “outside” students – those from educational institutions – and the “inside” students – those within the correctional facilities – have the equal opportunity to learn from each other’s experiences.
“Everybody is a student. Everybody is a teacher,” she said. McMakin said a conscious effort is made on everyone’s part to avoid calling the inside students prisoners.
Bruno said while the main mission of the Inside-Out program is to effectively reduce the rate of recidivism and provide career pathways to people recently released from prison, it also gives an opportunity for FSU students to change how they perceive incarcerated people.
“[In the classroom], we see them as human beings,” Bruno said. “We don’t see them as prisoners.”
FSU President F. Javier Cevallos said, “As the country grapples with the epidemic of mass incarceration, we are proud to play a role in expanding access to postsecondary education to current and former inmates. Education holds the power to transform lives and increase economic opportunities for this largely abandoned population.”