Higher Education Access and Parity: The Emerson Prison Initiative's Bachelor of Arts Program

Higher Education Access and Parity: The Emerson Prison Initiative's Bachelor of Arts Program

Mneesha Gellman (Emerson College, USA)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 20
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3056-6.ch003

Abstract

This chapter presents the educational intervention of the Emerson Prison Initiative, which offers a pathway to a Bachelor of Arts in Media, Literature, and Culture to incarcerated students at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord. A program of Emerson College, the Emerson Prison Initiative serves Emerson's mission to increase educational access for historically marginalized students, including those in prison, and maintains rigorous standards for academic excellence for students and faculty comparable to those at Emerson's Boston-based campus. The Emerson Prison Initiative is rooted in the notion that access to a college education can help transform how people engage in the world.
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Introduction

Who has the right to higher education, and what is education’s purpose? These questions are coming to the forefront of conversations about educational access and parity for historically marginalized populations, including amongst those who offer college-in-prison programs. Access to higher education remains fraught for many people in a variety of circumstances. Economic hardship, a lack of cultural capital that includes college values, and the historic and contemporary marginalization of communities of color contribute to only a modest subset of the larger US population receiving a college education. Many educators, including myself, enter the teaching profession because we see education as transformative, something that opens doors of opportunity while also expanding potential for creativity and analytic intellect. The reality that this transformative process is only available to a privileged few does not sit comfortably with many college faculty.

More and more, colleges and universities are looking for ways to expand access to college for historically underserved communities, including communities of color, first generation students, and the working class. Broadly housed under the rubric of diversity and inclusion efforts, social justice projects, or civic engagement, depending on the institution and the specific approach taken, increasing educational access is part of the social conscious and pragmatic planning efforts of many higher education institutions today. But what expanded educational access actually looks like depends on many different institutional and programmatic factors.

Prisons have become ubiquitous in the United States, with many people affected in a variety of ways by mass incarceration (Gottschalk, 2016; Katzenstein & Waller, 2015). At the same time, prisons can be reimagined as spaces for educational innovation and intervention that can have profound influence on unconventional students (Novick, 2019). There are a wide range of college-in-prison programs, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Best practices for college-in-prison programs, for example, are only recently being explicitly defined (Erzen, Gould, & Lewen, 2019). This chapter explores the contribution of one such program, and documents some of the successes and challenges of launching and building a degree-granting college program inside prison.

Prisons as institutions contain many college-eligible people who meet much of the criteria defined in missions to reach historically underserved populations. Higher education is very limited in prisons and varies tremendously from state to state (Wilson, Alamuddin, & Cooper, 2019). Yet prisons are spaces that contain people with the least educational access and the most potential to shift their life circumstances through personal transformation. For example, in Massachusetts, forty-two percent of men entered prison with less than a ninth grade reading level, and forty-four percent entered with less than a sixth grade math level (Massachusetts Department of Correction, 2018). Massachusetts economic data clearly shows that people working in the state with a college degree earn nearly double that of their counterparts with only a high school credential (Thompson, 2017). Even at the most basic economic level, the potential for changing one’s life circumstances through education is clear. Moreover, the widely cited Rand Corporation study showed empirically that educational programming of any type reduces recidivism for incarcerated people by forty-three percent, and the study further shows that it is educational access, rather than particular characteristics of inmates who enroll in such programs, that breaks the recidivism cycle (Davis et al., 2014; Rand Corporation, 2014, p. 14).

The case study of the Emerson Prison Initiative explores one way of addressing educational access and parity issues for incarcerated students. Though the following section delves into the minutia of higher education access and quality for one particular program, the intention is to provoke transferable and scalable reflection on the many complex institutional and social constraints and opportunities that govern the provision of higher education to incarcerated people.

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