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The Gift of Hope


Transforming Lives Through BC’s Prison Education Program

Like most Boston College faculty, Isabel Lane prepares diligently for each class—reviewing notes, designing projects, strategizing how best to lead her students through a complex topic. But for Lane and a small cohort of BC faculty, class prep also requires passing through metal detectors and being escorted through security checkpoints.

Lane is director of BC’s Prison Education Program (BCPEP), part of an ambitious partnership between BC, the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), and MCI-Shirley, a medium security state prison located 40 miles northwest of the BC campus. After earning a PhD in Russian literature from Yale, Lane did not expect to find her calling in a prison classroom, but from her first BPI class—on Soviet literature and ecology—she was hooked.

“It was just the most exciting teaching experience I’ve ever had, and it had a lot to do with the quality and intensity of students’ questions,” she says. “One thing I love about teaching in a correctional facility is that the students aren’t afraid to ask you really difficult questions.”

Those questions range from the expected—“what’s modernism?” and “who’s Stalin?”—to more contemplative inquiries about society, justice, and the students’ place in the world. Describing their environment as almost a form of sensory deprivation, Lane says the students are hungry to make connections between the curriculum and their own experiences in and out of prison.

 

BC prison education program director Isabel Lane

Bringing BC to Prison

BCPEP launched in summer 2019 thanks to an anonymous gift from a couple with longstanding ties to the University. They had been involved in some of BC’s other prison outreach efforts, including pastoral visits and an educational initiative at MCI-Norfolk men’s prison.

They heard about BPI through their daughter’s high school English teacher, who was involved in prison education. A recognized leader in prison education programs, BPI operates out of six New York State prisons and collaborates with schools and universities across the country to offer similar college-in-prison programs. Moved by what they learned, they felt BPI’s model would fit perfectly within BC’s Jesuit approach to liberal arts education.

“What struck us about the Bard program is that it has always been focused on providing the same education to the inmates that a typical BC undergraduate would receive,” they said. “It is intentionally and specifically a liberal arts curriculum, which is central to BC’s understanding of its own educational mission.”

Serendipitously, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections had expressed interest in starting a BPI program at MCI-Shirley and had suggested BC as a local partner. The couple eagerly made the introductions, helped establish the initial strategy, and generously provided seed funding to get it started.

They found an eager partner in Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley, who took the initiative under his wing and helped tackle the many practical aspects of collaborating with the Department of Corrections, sorting out how faculty could participate, and working with BPI.

“There were obviously a number of issues that needed to get ironed out,” recalled the donors. “But from the beginning there was a real enthusiasm from the administration to do this because they saw it as part and parcel of the University’s educational mission as a Jesuit, Catholic university.”

For Quigley, introducing a formal prison education program seemed like a natural extension of BC’s Jesuit, Catholic tradition.
“If you study the history of the Jesuits, there’s so much evidence of remarkable work being done in prison settings,” he said. “Some of the most inspiring Jesuits I’ve met around the world and on the BC campus are men who are living out their vocation working with the incarcerated.”

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A university is inescapably a social force: it must transform and enlighten the society in which it lives.
Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J.

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BC’s Other Campus

True to BC’s commitment to academic excellence, BCPEP sets the bar high for students and aims to provide an educational experience that is on par with that at the Heights. The only formal requirement for admission is a high school diploma or its equivalent, but Lane and others on the admission committee study each application, essay, and interview to select students with the most potential to benefit from BC’s rigorous liberal arts education.

The program currently offers three courses in spring and fall, with one planned summer course. Each course is small, discussion-based, and writing-intensive, and, just like their counterparts at the Heights, faculty emphasize critical thinking and active student participation.

Courses are taught by a mix of current faculty, visiting professors, and doctoral students who welcome the chance to teach students who otherwise might not have access to an elite liberal arts education.

“Education has the power to reshape a life, and with that comes the potential for our graduates to contribute great value to their communities,” said Cherie McGill, assistant professor of the practice who taught Intro to Philosophy last fall. Other courses at MCI-Shirley have included a first-year writing seminar; a theology course on God, Self, and Society; and Introduction to College Mathematics.

The response from MCI-Shirley prisoners was enthusiastic, with nearly 100 applicants for the first cohort of 16 students. BC hopes to expand the program, admitting a second cohort, offering additional courses, and eventually offering inmates a path to a fully-accredited Boston College degree. For now, all credits are fully transferable and can be applied to bachelor’s degrees at schools across the country.

Bard Prison Initiative students conjugate Spanish verbs at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, one of the BPI programs featured in College Behind Bars, a documentary series produced by Ken Burns that premiered in late 2019. (Skiff Mountain Films)

Hope on the Horizon

The students come from a wide range of backgrounds—some have not been inside a classroom for decades, others have taken multiple college courses. The program does not take their crime, sentence, or disciplinary records into consideration—only their passion and their potential.

“We see education as an opportunity that should be open to everyone,” said Lane, who teaches one class a semester and who serves also as recruiter, registrar, advisor, tutor, and advocate. “It’s transformative—or else why would we do this?”

One of the best parts, she says, is watching the students begin to identify as Eagles; many follow BC sports, and they are hoping to paint the BC logo on the classroom wall. “The classroom becomes a refuge from the prison and a place where students develop a sense of Boston College identity and community.”

That mix of academic rigor and college camaraderie is key, said the program’s benefactors. In BPI’s New York programs and now at MCI-Shirley, they have seen how opportunities like this can have ripple effects throughout the prison—and society.

“These are incredibly motivated students who, in turn, help motivate other inmates and students. Even among those who don’t get in, the current students will help tutor and help prepare them for their next application,” the donors said. “The entire culture of the prison is changed; it becomes a more humane, healthier community instead of a collection of individuals who have no hope.”

“We are really proud of BC for stepping up and taking the lead on this in Massachusetts,” they continue. “It’s really impressive that it’s our institution that we all believe in and support that decided to take that giant step forward. We think it’s a real feather in BC’s cap.”

To learn more about how you can help the BC Prison Education Program, contact Renee DeCesare at renee.decesare@bc.edu or visit  bc.edu/BCPEP.


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