The Prison Studies Project partnership with Boston University’s longstanding prison education program and the Massachusetts Department of Correction marks the first time that traditional college students learn alongside incarcerated students as part of a curriculum for college credit. Never before had Harvard University students and men and women enrolled in BU’s program shared a classroom inside the walls of prison. With a one-year HILT grant in 2013, we were able to include graduate students from Harvard Divinity School, which marks the first time in national history, as far as we know, that post-secondary prison education included, inside the prison classroom, both graduate and undergraduate students from a traditional college campus.
With funding, we will be able to sustain and measure the impact of the work we have begun. We have a powerful opportunity to institutionalize innovative teaching and learning at Harvard. To be an active community citizen is to reach out to people who are often denied educational opportunities; Harvard’s support of prison education is invaluable as is the opportunity for Harvard students to learn from peers who are incarcerated.
In 2009, Catherine Sirois and her classmates wrote to the dean of sociology… “…Reading about prison and the rise in mass incarceration cannot compare to the actual experience of entering a prison […] The class was without a doubt the most transformative, eye-opening course any of us has ever taken at Harvard. You can learn a lot from reading informative articles and books, but you will never truly understand the materials you are studying unless you engage with them firsthand.”
One of the classmates from Norfolk, George, also wrote a letter about his experience after the course was finished. When our class met, he had been incarcerated for nearly 40 years. In his words: “Education in isolation does not have the same impact as in an integrated environment. After all, isn’t that what much of the college experience is built around? Bringing people of varying ethnicities, and social classes together, so that individuals may become more aware of the commonalities that make us ultimately the family of [hu]man!. His greatest learning experiences have taken place in an integrated environment. He writes, these experiences have never failed to leave me with a greater sense of self-worth, along with strengthening my sense of connection to the community at large… “Thank you for your efforts in bringing this course into being,” he writes. “I hope this experience marks a return to greater community involvement in education, and rehabilitation, within the incarcerated community.”
Catherine Sirois, a Stanford PhD student in Sociology, who continues to draw on the lessons that she learned nearly 10 years ago at Norfolk prison, writes:“My experience with prison education sparked a desire to more fully understand incarceration in America and to work for change. More than that, the experience underscored the importance of doing this work in collaboration with those who have been most harmed by the injustice of the American punishment system. As a scholar and an educator, I hope to provide transformative educational opportunities beyond the gates (or the palm trees) of the institutions to which we are so privileged to belong. In my experience, extending the resources of our institutions lifts up those who have for so long been denied those resources and makes all of us better students, teachers, and citizens.” –
Check out the Beyond the Gates website to see how Harvard has supported prison education from 1833 to now and what more needs to be done to actualize equal access to education.