Senior Profile: Amanda Borquaye, Margo Bender advocate for prison reform

Graduating seniors Amanda Borquaye (left) and Margo Bender (right) pose for a photo in the Rez for the Daily on April 25, 2018. Erik Britt / The Tufts Daily

Graduating seniors and close friends Amanda Borquaye and Margo Bender have had some of their most meaningful experiences at Tufts through their involvement with the Tufts University Prison Initiative at the Tisch College of Civic Life (TUPIT).

Borquaye, who majored in international relations and sociology, had done volunteer work in juvenile detention centers in high school and cited this as one of her main motivations for getting involved with prison education reform at Tufts.

“There were just these kids sitting in prison and not receiving their education and not getting adequate programming, and I was just outraged that that was something that was happening,” she said.

In Borquaye’s sophomore year, for her Tisch Scholar project, she started a Tufts chapter of the Petey Greene Program, a national organization which aims to improve the quality of education that incarcerated people receive in prison. This year, as student primary collaborator and research assistant at TUPIT, Borquaye interviewed incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people to assess their experience of college-in-prison programs.

Bender, who majored in Africana studies and international relations, first got involved with prison reform advocacy at Tufts because of her interest in becoming a foster parent.

“The first instance of how I got involved with prison initiative work is with the knowledge that the prison and foster care systems are highly intertwined … and the knowledge that lots of the children I would interact with would possibly have parents or have personal experiences with nontraditional forms of education, with the criminal system, with prison,” she said.

From there, Bender became a leader in TUPIT because of the people she connected with through her advocacy work.

“I met too many people and created too many relationships with the men I’ve worked with to not have a personal connection with the work,” she said.

Both Bender and Borquaye have taken the class Mass Incarceration and the Literature of Confinement, which has been taught since fall 2017 as an Inside-Out course at correctional institutions in Shirley, Mass.

“There are 10 inside students, who are incarcerated at Shirley prison, and 10 traditional Tufts undergraduate students. All 20 people are Tufts students, but they have different backgrounds,” Bender said. “Half of the course content is the experience of the course and this relationship between outside students and inside students … More than half of the course, I would say, is it being a literature course, so you read books and articles and plays, and have projects like any other course would.”

Bender and Borquaye both reported having many meaningful experiences while working with incarcerated people through these initiatives. Borquaye recalled a conversation about the war in Syria that she had with a student whom she tutored through the Petey Greene Program.

“It was a conversation I couldn’t have had on Tufts campus. It was so intellectually spirited in a way that wasn’t pretentious at all, so I will just always remember being able to come in and get a piece of academic or intellectual engagement that I don’t feel like I can even get at Tufts,” she said.

Bender, too, commented on the uniqueness of her experiences.

“The Inside-Out class was the most incredible educational and intellectual experience I’ve ever had because I’ve never been with people who cared so much about being there,” Bender said. “We had this reading, and most of [the outside students] had kind of read it, skimmed it, and all of the inside students came with pages and pages of notes — they were so prepared, so invested and so excited.”

Borquaye recognized that despite all the time that she has dedicated to prison reform and TUPIT, she still doesn’t understand every aspect of the problem.

“I’m not an expert on this regardless of me going into a prison every week for the past three years. That’s such a small drop in the bucket in understanding this issue,” Borquaye said. “It’s such a huge, huge issue that touches so many areas of life. It touches race, it touches sexuality, it touches gender, it touches age, it definitely touches socioeconomic status and there’s just so much more work that needs to be done, and Petey Greene and TUPIT are just the bare minimum that Tufts needs. We need to step it up.”

Bender agreed and emphasized that advocacy for prison reform needs to center the voices of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons.

“No matter how much you know, unless you’ve lived with this experience, unless you are of this place, you’re always going to be an outsider,” Bender said. “For me, one of the most important things I’ve learned … and try to be proactive about is prioritizing the voices and experiences of those most impacted by the issue.”

After they graduate, both Borquaye and Bender hope to stay involved with prison reform. Borquaye is also interested in migration and the possibility of examining its relationship with incarceration.

“I definitely hope … to explore both of those topics in depth, whether it be through my career path … or on a volunteer basis or an academic lens,” she said.

Bender also wishes to continue her involvement with prison reform, specifically around education.

“One of the things that does interest me is the idea of teaching college-level courses inside prisons to incarcerated students,” Bender said. “Being able to be a part of that kind of programming is very interesting to me as a long-term kind of goal.”

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