Liberal Arts Education Comes to MA Prison

Liberal Arts Education Comes to MA Prison

When it comes to prison education, most people tend to think of GED and vocational programs, but college programs are increasingly being offered behind bars — including liberal arts education.

A new program called the Emerson Prison Initiative (EPI) has been launched at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord (MCI). The three-year, six-semester pilot program makes a liberal arts education accessible to inmates. In the third year, the program will be evaluated to determine its future.

“For the students inside, I hope that the class provides a means of intellectual engagement that allows them to seek out more, and to do their time better and in ways that are productive so that whether or not they will be released during their lifetime, they have the dignity of intellectual engagement,” said Mneesha Gellman, assistant professor and director of EPI.

Previously, MCI offered a GED program, and no other prison education programs, making EPI new and uncharted territory for this prison. It’s a golden opportunity for inmates since as many aspects as possible of the liberal arts course are identical to the one Gellman teaches at Emerson College. However, there are some drawbacks. The classroom has only one computer, and there are limitations on what can be taken into the prison as teaching aides – let alone what multimedia information can be shown. Nonetheless, Gellman is determined to mirror her Emerson campus course as closely as possible within the prison walls.

“We’re trying to mirror the experience we offer our main campus students,” she said. “We wanted to have a freshman seminar that focuses on really learning how to do academic writing and college-level critical thinking.”

Although new, the program is already expanding. A grant from the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) that creates opportunities for incarcerated people to earn a Bard College degree during their sentence, will allow EPI to offer two additional classes in the spring of 2018. Ongoing fundraisers are planned to continue support of the program.

“Anytime we can do a partnership like (EPI), it’s beneficial to the inmates. The more educated an inmate becomes, the more likely they are to not recidivate,” Christopher Fallon, assistant deputy commissioner of communications at the Massachusetts Department of Corrections said. Amy Ansell, dean of liberal arts, also voiced support for the program, saying, “A lot of programs in prison have been focused on having students come out and get jobs once they’re released from prison. This program is given to students who may never get out of prison. It’s much more about what the liberal arts can offer people no matter where they’re situated in terms of thinking about themselves and their world.”

Many believe that education is a right, not a privilege – and that means making education accessible to everyone, no matter what the barriers. For many, socio-economic status, the school-to-prison pipeline, remote rural living, poverty, and incarceration pose major barriers to fair and accessible education. However, it doesn’t matter if the person is behind bars for life, chooses to live out his or her days in a remote mountain dwelling, lives in a tenement, or resides in a palatial mansion – education benefits each individual, those that come into contact with them, and society at large. The EPI program understands this and realizes that although some of the students in the program may never experience life outside of jail again, access to education improves their lives and the lives of those around them.

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Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at,, and