Home Web system When prison education went virtual, an MIT program reached new incarcerated students

When prison education went virtual, an MIT program reached new incarcerated students

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Dominique Kirk has always valued education, but she dropped out of college to prioritize caring for her children. Years later, when she arrived at the Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center, a minimum-security facility, she had a goal in mind when she spoke to Director of Education Abbie Embry-Turner.

“I had a lot of problems here,” she said in a Zoom call from the facility. “When I met Abbie, I told her that I really wanted to get my life back on track and that school was something I wanted to go back to.”

Kirk restarted his college career last year through a distance learning program offered at SMWRC, a pilot project of MIT’s Education Justice Institute. Now, she plans to complete her Associate of Commerce degree at the University of Maine at Augusta.

Educators and administrators at correctional facilities say MIT’s virtual program has been a success, allowing them to cross geographic barriers, offer courses that teach in-demand skills, and reach underserved populations in New Brunswick. England. They hope it can be a model for prison education in the future, well after the pandemic.

WATCH: Students Mackenzie Kelley and Victoria Scott talk about their experience with MIT’s distance learning program

When in-person prison education programs were shut down in 2020, professors like MIT’s Lee Perlman, who has taught college classes in Boston-area prisons since the 1980s, began experimenting with other means of reaching incarcerated men and women.

In his course “Non-violence as a way of life”, he used to bringing MIT students to prisons to learn side-by-side with incarcerated students, grappling with ethical questions of justice, redemption and forgiveness.

“The in-person experience is so powerful that I wondered if it could be replicated online,” Perlman said.

The pandemic has forced educators and facility staff to establish a new virtual platform in places where internet use is restricted. Prior to the introduction of the MIT platform in 2020, women in Maine institutions had to attend classes lagging behind, relying on spotty internet and computers whenever they could gain supervised access.

This new platform enabled real-time interaction and discussion, like a real classroom. It also provided an opportunity to expand beyond Boston and bring together students from different institutions. The Educational Justice Institute reached out to partners in New England, including the Maine Women’s Facility and Northeast Men’s Facilities, making classes co-ed for the first time, a rare occurrence in education in jail. More than 50 incarcerated students took classes through the distance learning program, joined by students from MIT, Harvard University and Wellesley College.

Mackenzie Kelley, a student at the Maine Correctional Facility who is in her final semester of a bachelor’s degree in business management program, said the virtual class was just as intimate — sometimes even more so — than it was. would have been in person.

“I really appreciate the humanity of the course because over time you realize it’s not really about ‘internal’ students or ‘external’ students,” she said. on Zoom. “It’s just that we’re all human and we all make mistakes.”

This humanity was evident in the restorative justice unit in Perlman’s class. In one of Kelley’s classes in which she was a teaching assistant, she described a profound moment: an MIT student, whose mother was the victim of a violent crime, spoke directly with a student from another Maine facility that was in jail for murder. When Perlman asked the man to imagine that the MIT student and her family were his victims, he broke down.

“So he cries, she cries, I cry because I see this interaction,” Kelley said. “I think we all learned from each other.”

Danielle Ward, who has taken college courses through MIT’s distance learning program, is studying at the Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center.

Abbie Embry Turner

Danielle Ward, who also took the Nonviolence Course at SMWRC and is earning an Associate’s Degree in Mental Health and Human Services, found the same compassion and camaraderie in her course. One of the MIT students told the class that she had a friend who had been killed by a drunk driver. Ward, who is serving time for manslaughter while driving a vehicle, wasn’t sure if she should share her background in class.

“I was really nervous about speaking with her,” she said via Zoom. “I just didn’t know how she would feel about it, or if she would think of me any differently.”

Ward spoke about her background and the student responded with empathy. Both Kelley and Ward were surprised at how much the students in each class — MIT undergraduates, incarcerated women, and incarcerated men — could relate to each other.

“We all come from different backgrounds, so it was a non-judgmental class,” Ward said.

Creating the conditions for these courses required the difficult work of adapting to the constraints of the different facilities.

“It was remarkable because we were able to create a live, synchronous, distance learning community – much more than a traditional Zoom conference in a classroom,” said Carole Cafferty, co-director of The Educational Justice Institute. .


“I really appreciate the humanity of the course because after a while you realize it’s not really about ‘inside’ students or ‘outside’ students “. It’s just that we’re all human and we all make mistakes.

-Mackenzie Kelley, student at Maine Correctional Facility

Prison education classes typically cover general education or liberal arts subjects, and women’s prisons are often underserved with educational programs because they have a smaller population. The virtual option allowed MIT to go against both of these standards. They brought together enough students from different institutions to offer brave behind bars, a computer science course that brought together 25 women from four different New England institutions over the summer. They all earned credit through Washington County Community College.

Marisa Gaetz, a PhD candidate in mathematics at MIT, taught the course. She had previously served as a teaching assistant for Perlman’s nonviolence class, an experience she called “really unique and special.”

Gaetz and several other MIT students adapted the web design course specifically for incarcerated women, structuring it with practicality in mind. Students learned HTML, CSS, and Javascript through hands-on projects.

“[The students] seemed much more inspired to learn when it’s something you care about, rather than something abstract and distant,” she said.

There were challenges. Each institution had its own technical infrastructure and its own security protocols: some students had access to e-mail, others did not; some students could log in individually to Zoom, others could not.

Once they worked out the logistics, Gaetz said the quality of virtual learning turned out to be “the same if not better” for teaching web design. With breakout rooms, screen control, chats, and polls, MIT instructors got creative with engaging with students and personalizing their teaching.

For their final project, the students each created a website dedicated to something that interested them. One site collected resources for women in prison, including an episode of Sesame Street on incarceration; another raised awareness of domestic violence. A woman created a site for her daughter’s small business.

Cafferty said web design can give students a boost when looking for a job.

“We live in a digital world and candidates with coding skills are in high demand,” she said. “Coding skills provide a solid pathway for returning citizens to earn sustainable income and break the cycle of incarceration.”

Education as rehabilitation

Studies have shown that education may be the key to reducing recidivism. Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said the MIT program fits within the state’s rehabilitation philosophy. He praised SMWRC administrators for making educational programs available during the pandemic despite technical challenges, which he encourages more correctional facilities to consider.

“They recognize that we should be in the business of healing and redemption no matter where you are on the political spectrum,” he said. “If we’re spending $46,000 a year to house someone, we need to figure out why they’re there and do everything we can to keep them from coming back. »

At a recent virtual prison education roundtable sponsored by The Educational Justice Institute, Sam Willliams, executive director of Concord Prison Outreach in Massachusetts, said the virtual curriculum shows where prison education should be headed. .

“It’s state of the art for me, being a formerly incarcerated person,” he said. “Now, having been doing prison education myself for 25 years, and knowing that it takes that kind of effort, leadership, commitment, creativity on the part of the students. … It is in this direction that we must go.

Liberty said programs like MIT’s can “break the cycle of incarceration” for women, many of whom leave behind children when caught up in the criminal justice system.

Ward hopes his pursuit of education can inspire his own children.

“I just try to show them that people can change,” she said. “Mom is back at school and continuing with my studies – I just want them to be proud of me,” she said.