BC Launches Prison Education Program

Boston College opened up its latest satellite campus this fall in a less-than-traditional location: the Massachusetts Correctional Institute, a men’s correctional institute in Shirley, Mass., (MCI-Shirley), where 16 men are currently taking classes through the University’s new Prison Education Program.

The program is modeled on and supported by the Bard Prison Initiative, which has offered liberal arts education in New York state correctional facilities since 2001. Since then, Bard College has helped prisoners earn over 500 degrees across six programs. 

Over the summer, BC hired Isabel Lane to direct the program, thanks to a large anonymous donation. Before coming to Chestnut Hill, Lane taught two courses through the Bard Prison Initiative.

“Because Bard has a lot of experience, they are essentially providing a support system and a template for us,” Lane said. “But at the same time this really is a BC program.”

After she was hired, Lane immediately jumped into curriculum development and the admissions process. Ninety-nine men applied to the courses, a process that required both an admissions exam and an interview. Although just 16 students were able to enroll this year, a second cohort will join them next fall.

“I believe it is personally and socially important to offer high quality college education to people who otherwise would not have access to it,” Lane said. “That’s what has driven me personally in my career and what drew me to this job. It’s about giving educational access to people who deserve, as I think everyone does.” 

Lane credited Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley, who has been involved in conversations about starting a prison education program for over two years, with doing much of the behind-the-scenes work to get the program up and running, especially over the summer. He traveled to MCI-Shirley, which is over an hour away, multiple times over this summer to run information sessions and oversee orientation.

“It was really exciting to see the way in which there was such widespread interest among the men at MCI-Shirley and to see the kinds of impact that the three BC instructors are having already,” Quigley said.

Lane said that the program currently offers three courses: algebra, taught by retired professor Richard Jenson; philosophy, taught by professor Cherie McGill; and first-year writing, taught by Patrick Conway. The goal, she said, is to provide students with bachelor’s degrees that closely follow the Woods College of Arts and Sciences’ core curriculum. 

“So we obviously can’t have the same number of majors or course offerings that you have on the regular campus,” Lane said. “But I think ultimately, the goal is to have a set of several possible majors that students will actually specialize [in].”

In the spring, the men can take theology, history, and literature, the latter of which Lane will teach, although the University hasn’t made any final determinations.

“Some peer schools have taken the approach of having a bachelor of arts in liberal studies or liberal arts,” Quigley said. “Other places have designed a robust set of majors, and the others have found that a midpoint approach of having divisional majors. For now, we’re kicking it around at the steering committee level, thinking about what makes the most sense.”

The Bard Prison Initiative allows its students to major in the arts, language, literature, and the humanities; science, mathematics, and computing; and social studies. At the end of their studies, students write a thesis in their area of study. Lane said that, while the Bard program is a strong model, BC wants its program to be unique as well.

Conway, a graduate student in the Lynch School, also teaches first-year writing seminars at BC, which he says he runs similarly to the MCI-Shirely curriculum.

“The only potential changes are stuff that relates to the limitation of the prison itself,” Conway said. “Research papers are obviously a little more difficult. But other than that, it’s a very similar course to what’s offered on the BC campus.”

Conway, who teaches the 75-minute class twice a week, has noticed that his students at MCI-Shirley have shown an intense desire to learn in the classroom. 

To distinguish BC’s program from others’, Lane was careful to ensure that the program was specifically designed to exemplify the academic rigor, character, and Jesuit mission of the University. 

“It really fits in nicely with BC’s philosophy of forming the whole person, because here it’s not about changing or rehabilitating necessarily, it’s about kind of giving people a framework for going out into the world and making a meaningful impact,” Lane said. “All the things that you want from a 22-year-old BC graduate, we want from our students at MCI-Shirley.”

Like Lane, Quigley hopes that the new program can further BC’s Jesuit mission.

“Going back to the 16th century, [the] Society of Jesus has long had its members doing interesting work in education, but in other forms of ministry as well, in prisons with the incarcerated,” Quigley said. “For me, it’s an exciting way of thinking about Boston College’s distinctive history and mission.”

Conway, who used to be a criminal defense investigator and has taught at Boston Univerity’s prison education program, believes that BC’s program is a key part of rectifying flaws in the criminal justice system, especially as obtaining an education becomes more and more important to finding lifelong employment.

“It’s not always just really bad people who end up in prison, a lot of factors that contribute to it,” Conway said. “And I think when you start getting a sense of the scope of what mass incarceration is, you feel compelled to do something about it.

“Mass incarceration is one of the most serious problems I think our society faces, and I think higher education should be involved in addressing some of the problems that are at the root of it. And I think these types of programs that connect two worlds that are often completely separate are extremely valuable.”

Featured Image by Jonathan Yee/Heights Senior Staff

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