Effort to support postsecondary education in prison will be housed at MIT

A multi-university consortium will look to transform the lives of incarcerated people through education.


The MIT Educational Justice Institute will lead a consortium to support expanding access to postsecondary education to people currently and formerly in prison statewide, fueled by a grant by the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Other member schools include Boston University, Emerson College, Mt. Wachusett Community College, and Tufts University.

The effort will draw upon the expertise of MIT’s Lee Perlman, a lecturer in philosophy who has taught prior classes to cohorts consisting of MIT students and incarcerated students, and Carole Caffery, a program administrator with over 25 years of experience as a corrections professional.

The co-directors of the new institute are also members of the MIT Experimental Study Group (ESG), a first-year learning community that has long supported a related effort to expose MIT students to the challenges and opportunities of bringing learning opportunities to local correctional facilities. 

“This is a marvelous vote of confidence for us to build upon our past work,” says Perlman. “I’m excited about the transformational opportunities we can bring to the lives of those who are incarcerated by taking advantage of MIT’s hands-on pedagogy, commitment to social justice, and novel teaching technologies.”

The programming will not only feature a strong foundation in the sciences and humanities, but also career and technical training that will begin during incarceration and continue into the community. The consortium will also be responsible for creating academic and career advising specific to the needs of justice-involved students. Establishing the right learning context and wraparound support is paramount. 

“Even the best education, integrating the robust resources of all of our partners, on its own, is not enough,” adds Cafferty, “Preparing returning citizens for the workforce builds resilience and promotes success. We also need to address practical challenges such as seamlessly transferring credits, conferring degrees, and assisting with comprehensive discharge plans. The ultimate goal is ambitious, but achievable: changing lives, increasing economic opportunity, and creating safer communities in Massachusetts”

While a 2013 study by the RAND Corporation found that people in prison who receive some form of postsecondary education are 43 percent less likely to reoffend than people who do not, a federal ban on Pell Grants for people in prisons and other state-based provisions, make accessing postsecondary education extraordinarily difficult.

The Education Justice Institute will be tasked with finding solutions or advocating for legislative changes to remove barriers for incarcerated individuals who are motivated to learn and ready complete their degrees. In other words, finding ways to deliver traditional college classes (in-person or online) and teach skills-building are just two aspects Perlman and Cafferty are exploring.

Creating an “education pipeline” will build the strong connections needed to foster a brighter future for former prisoners. “All too often, barriers to reentry start inside prisons only to follow people after they leave,” said Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at Vera. “This consortium will help establish Massachusetts as a leader in postsecondary education for people who are or were formerly incarcerated, which has a proven track record of transforming lives and communities.”

The MIT co-directors are also excited about the opportunities for MIT students to become engaged and better informed about incarceration in America. One student admissions blogger who took Perlman’s prison-based classes found the experience life changing and the determination of the prisoners inspiring, writing: “If there was ever any reflection of the adage that human spirits can stay strong in the face of darkness, that people can make personally uplifting opportunities out of absolutely anywhere and anything, it was reflected in those inspiring women.”

“At MIT we take pride in our commitment to build a better world. That often means new technologies, companies, or products. I want to make sure we use the broadest possible definition of that mandate and help those often living just out of site in our own backyards,” said Perlman.

Also involved in the effort will be Roxbury Community College, Harvard University, and Wellesley College. Additional consortium members will include the Massachusetts Department of Correction, The Petey Greene Program, The Massachusetts Parole Board, The Massachusetts Probation Service, and other organizations in the state focused on serving currently and formerly incarcerated individuals.


Topics: Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Cambridge, Boston and region, Education, teaching, academics, Philosophy, School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences

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