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Opinion | Lee Pelton

Offering the college promise to those in prison

Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk, or MCI-Norfolk. Meredith Nierman/WGBH News/WGBH News

When Congress passed and President Trump signed into law the First Step Act in late December, it represented a rare bipartisan effort to improve prison conditions and sentencing guidelines — and begin to invest in the human beings behind bars, who inevitably return to our communities.

While these reforms are an important step forward, we should go even further to open up educational opportunities for the incarcerated.

The new federal legislation includes new programs that support the reentry of low-risk prisoners as they return to their communities, shortens mandatory sentencing for some nonviolent offenders, and eliminates solitary confinement for most juveniles and the practice of shackling pregnant inmates. Courts now have the ability to address the terrible sentencing disparity between cocaine and crack cocaine — related crimes that sent many people, mostly African Americans, to lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent offenses beginning in the 1990s.


Reflecting on the words of Alfred North Whitehead, who said that education holds before us the promise of “habitual visions of greatness,” I know we, as a society, can do better.

Unfortunately, few educational opportunities are offered to the men and women in our country’s jails and prisons, even though they need it the most. Earning a degree has proved to be a highly effective tool to reduce recidivism. Indeed, a 2016 RAND Corporation study concluded that up to 43 percent of inmates are less likely to re-offend and return to prison when they have access to education.

With nearly 2.3 million adults held in America’s prisons and jails in 2018, it is clear that years of harsh criminal justice policies have created an enormous population of marginalized Americans, many of them disproportionately people of color.

In Massachusetts, it costs from $50,000 to 70,000 per year to incarcerate someone — more than it costs to attend all of our public universities and some of our independent institutions for one year. And although the Legislature and governor here approved a budget with $5 million in grants for community-based programs for released inmates (an increase), it does not adequately address the high number of offenders who seek this assistance.


While state lawmakers summon the courage to truly address the issue, the Emerson College Prison Initiative, which launched in 2017, intends to make lasting and transformative change.

Emerson has created a new pathway to a bachelor’s degree for incarcerated students who have been accepted into the Emerson Prison Initiative. Funded by the college as well as the Gardiner Howland Shaw Foundation, the Bard Prison Initiative, and individual donors, the EPI degree will offer enrolled students at MCI-Concord, a men’s medium-security state prison, the access to education they have long been denied. In doing so, EPI takes an affirmative step in addressing structural inequality through expanding access to higher education.

MCI-Concord students enroll in classes ranging from Power and Privilege to Where Non-Fiction Meets Poetry. They take US Theater Studies and Business Mathematics. It’s the same content taught by Emerson faculty at our Boston campus, and with the same rigorous standards.

These students were not handed this opportunity; they had to work for it. The application process was highly selective, and potential students had to illustrate commitment and ability.

One student I met at MCI-Concord, a man in his mid-30s who had dropped out of high school, poignantly described to me his first experiences with the Emerson course work as overwhelming, because he didn’t yet possess the academic or analytic tools to participate. But in three semesters, he said, he found his intellectual voice and confidence to participate enthusiastically in class.


Someone finally believed in him. And, in turn, he professes he is now “addicted to learning.”

Expectations are high as Emerson commits to this civic engagement effort, a core principle for us.

Why should higher educational institutions care so much about the incarcerated segment of our population? The answer is as simple as it is powerful: The nation looks to higher education to solve its most pressing problems. It is our duty to step up because we have the know-how and instruments of change to transform our communities by providing all citizens with the most valuable tool available to human society — education.

We just have to be brave enough to do it.

Lee Pelton is president of Emerson College.