Going to prison — as a class — ended up being a life-changing experience for Claudia Guetta.
Before Guetta ever stepped foot in a prison, she grew up in Westport, Conn. with two older sisters. From a young age, her interests varied from playing musical instruments to baking with her dad, where her love of science blossomed.
“I also was definitely interested in science in different ways. I’d always bake with my dad when I was growing up, and I think that was like actually a start that I didn’t realize of thinking about science in new ways.”
As a high schooler, she was part of her school’s EMT team, cementing her connection to science, and in particular, caring for others. When it came to choosing a college, Tufts simply gave her a good feeling.
“I was always really captured by how interdisciplinary Tufts was and the focus on out-of-classroom learning,” Guetta said.
The out-of-classroom learning experience proved to be incredibly important as she approached her first semester, when she took a class sometimes known as Inside/Out. Officially called The Literature of Confinement and taught by Hilary Binda, the class brings several Tufts students together with incarcerated classmates to learn about the literature of confinement.
While this class takes place in different facilities, Guetta went to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord, a medium-security prison for men.
“It just completely changed my life, just learning with people across barriers and boundaries that seem like they’re really strict and really important in our world, but then realizing you actually have a lot of similarities with people just across education and compassion and humanization,” Guetta said.
Although she went into Tufts with a science mindset, she realized she couldn’t “just study science and be okay with it.” Influenced by her prison experience, she found sociology and community health, which became her two majors, to be complementary to her interest in medicine and restorative justice endeavors, which extended beyond The Literature of Confinement: “The class finished, and I just was like, ‘I can’t leave,’” Guetta said.
As an incoming first-year, Guetta became exposed to the Tufts University Prison Initiative of the Tisch College of Civic Life via a Facebook group post by Nora Maetzener, who would become her mentor. According to the TUPIT website, the program aims to bring Tufts community members together with “incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, educators, organizers, corrections staff, and scholars of criminal justice” to collaboratively tackle the problems of mass incarceration and racial injustice.
When COVID-19 hit, the program adapted by corresponding through the mail, since prisons lacked technological resources. In fall 2020, Tufts community members were able to go to the prisons masked and distanced. Throughout her time there, Guetta has been a teaching assistant in the prisons for classes on topics ranging from health and human rights to genetics to writing, organizing successful crowdfunding campaigns and working on expanding programs for the incarcerated people participating in TUPIT.
“Since its inception, [TUPIT] has always really needed support that it doesn’t always get from the school, and the world more largely,” Guetta said.
While TUPIT has certainly made progress, Guetta still saw a need for continued support once people were released from prison. In this context, TUPIT has since created MyTERN, a reentry program for people who have recently completed the Tufts program and were released from prison, Guetta detailed.
Since the program began, incarcerated people have been able to earn an associate’s degree from Bunker Hill Community College and acquire credit by taking Tufts courses due to the university’s lack of associate’s degree offerings. Recently, a vote by Tufts faculty allowed incarcerated people to complete a bachelor’s degree with a major in civic studies from inside the prison.
“So our students, our first cohort … this past December was the first graduating class in Massachusetts to finish a college degree in prison,” Guetta said. “They finished in December — all with honors — and they are now starting their bachelor’s degree from Tufts with a major in civic studies on the inside, and then, when that first cohort graduated from the associate’s degree, we started with a second cohort, and so now they’re starting their associate’s degree program where the first cohort is finishing their B.A.”
Outside of TUPIT-related efforts, Guetta works with a restorative justice program in the Boston area called the Transformational Prison Project, which seeks to expand the perception of justice as something that only exists in the criminal justice system. The program facilitates spaces for people to think about harms: the harms they’ve caused, they’ve experienced and how to heal from them. According to Guetta, the program aims to create accountability as people in a community.
In addition to her work on restorative justice, Guetta looked back fondly on her favorite activities at Tufts, including “sledding down Pres Lawn with my friends, stargazing on the Tisch Library roof and swimming in the Mystic River.”
Guetta will be attending Tufts University School of Medicine this fall after being accepted for the Early Assurance Program, which guarantees acceptance to TUSM before the main application process.
There were certain points where she questioned her path to medicine, but her experiences made her realize that she can connect health with justice, even if she hasn’t figured out exactly how that will be.
“I can [study medicine] in a different way, and I know that health and medicine are what I want to be doing, but I just want to be thinking about it in different ways,” Guetta said. “I just want to be in a place where I can learn and think about health in a really holistic way, and I don’t know exactly what that’s going to look like.”
After four years at Tufts, Guetta reflected on the experiences and the significance of TUPIT.
“The best learning experience has been being able to be a part of one that breaks down these barriers between people that seem so different and uncovers these deep similarities of passion for education, and the ability for a program like this to exist at Tufts where we can redefine what it means to be a traditional Tufts student and a traditional college student and form a really strong community,” Guetta said.