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Addressing Mass Incarceration through Education

Thursday, December 3, 2020

The Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College has adapted and persevered during COVID-19, providing invaluable opportunities to formerly incarcerated individuals.

Tufts and MyTERN students

As told to Jeremy Goldstein, A21

The Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College (TUPIT) brings Tufts faculty and students together with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, corrections staff, educators, and scholars of criminal justice to facilitate creative and collaborative responses to the problems of mass incarceration. Extending the vision of both the university and Tisch College, TUPIT is dedicated to providing transformative educational experiences that foster students’ and faculty members’ capacities to become active citizens of change in the world.

Here, Claudia Guetta, A22, a community health and sociology major from Westport, Connecticut, offers observations on her work as a student coordinator for MyTERN (Tufts Education Re-entry Network), a TUPIT program through which Tufts offers an accredited four-course, 10-credit certification program for people directly impacted by the carceral system. As a student coordinator of TUPIT, Claudia has been a teaching assistant in the TUPIT degree program for two semesters, raised $50,000 over the course of two crowdfunding campaigns, planned and organized two annual symposia, and assisted in the establishment of the MyTERN program.

On one of the most important aspects of local activism—and COVID’s impact on MyTERN 

A lot of the issues on which TUPIT has been working for years are evident to those of us who are part of the program. People releasing face countless obstacles related to mental and physical health… educational attainment… limited availability of safe housing options… a declining job market… and self-efficacy and self-confidence. As a result of these obstacles, 75 percent of people released from state prisons are reincarcerated within five years. We care about the people we work with inside. And we see there’s more of a need than ever to decarcerate and prevent recidivism. 

COVID has begun to make others more aware of the inequalities in incarceration as well as larger racial inequities and health inequities. And while there is still a lot to be done, the pandemic’s having highlighted these issues has opened up avenues of support—social, tangible, and financial—from the Tufts administration, students, and wider community, for this program.  

One important part of advocacy and organizing is building that network of people and working with people who have different perspectives from your own to broaden your lens and your work. I've learned through MyTERN that we would not have been able to do this work without our community partners. As much as we care at Tufts and want to help, that's often not enough. You need to understand where people are coming from and what their experiences have been. That's largely something I'm not always going to be able to understand. But TUPIT is connected to a large, robust network of people with lived experience—either lived experience with incarceration or lived experience working with people in this population—here in the Boston area. This network has, among other things, enabled us to develop this program in the right ways and make sure it has the right teachers, classes, and opportunities for students.

On the transformational power of self-confidence, through education

The educational experiences that my fellow students and I have had—the ones that led us to an elite university like Tufts—are experiences that our TUPIT students would never have had the opportunity to have. Before the program [MyTERN] began, we surveyed our TUPIT students on the inside (and one who had just released) about their thoughts about education. A lot of their perceptions—especially about higher education—were negative, based both on their own experiences and on what their family taught them about people who went to schools like Tufts. 
But now they're learning to see themselves as Tufts students. While they are co-learning with Tufts students or being tutored by Tufts students, they ask us about our experiences here. Especially the people who are starting to release soon… they ask about like what our classes are like? One person really wants to get his Ph.D. in psychology. He was asking us, “What does the Intro to Psych class look like at Tufts? When I'm in it, what is it going to be like for me?” They're really starting to envision themselves as Tufts students.

Systemic racism is so deeply rooted in this country. I don't know where to begin with fixing it. But I think it's also important to remember that there are small things we can do that can help. As a white person, I'm never going to experience it or be able to completely empathize with it. But seeing the change in our students and in their self-confidence as learners has been an amazing transformation to watch.

On the how—and why—of helping more formerly incarcerated people take advantage of programs like MyTERN

At the moment, our program is small, particularly as a result of the challenges that COVID (as well as a lack of funding) presents for programs like ours. But we’ve worked to make MyTERN as scalable as possible. We’ve been really lucky, though, to run this program in person during the pandemic, while maintaining healthy social distancing and health protocols. It’s been important and incredibly uniting to do so this fall, when people have otherwise been so isolated. The relationship building has consistently been one of the most critical components of the TUPIT programming. We see its value this semester in student self-confidence, dynamic class conversations, and personal and professional growth. 

The Tufts mission statement emphasizes civic learning… providing transformative experiences for students and an inclusive and collaborative environment and bold ideas and things in complex challenges. All of that is great. I see that in my own education, for sure; I'm so lucky for that. But as a university, we owe that experience to the larger community. Our incarcerated students are Tufts students. It's our responsibility as an institution to spread the values from the mission statement and to offer those opportunities not to just our enrolled and matriculated students but to as many others as we can.