TUPIT examines education in prison at first-ever symposium

A member of the Tufts University Prison Initiative at Tisch College (TUPIT), reads opening remarks at the second day of TUPIT's event The Responsibility of Engagement: Prison & Education at Remis Sculpture Court. (Ray Bernoff / The Tufts Daily)

The Tufts University Prison Initiative at the Tisch College of Civic Life (TUPIT) hosted its first symposium on Feb. 1 and 2, focusing on providing perspectives on education in prison and solitary confinement through presentations by experts and formerly incarcerated people. The two-day event, entitled “Prison and Education Symposium: The Responsibility of Engagement,” featured panels, presentations and film screenings in the Aidekman Arts Center.

TUPIT is a program that focuses on linking students at Tufts with students pursuing education in prisons. Directed by Hilary Binda, who also serves as the director of the women’s, gender, and sexuality studies department at Tufts, TUPIT’s initiatives include the Inside-Outside course, according to Nora Maetzener, one of the symposium’s co-directors. 

Binda emphasized that TUPIT is focused on education rather than prison reform.

“We are absolutely not a policy or advocacy group,” Binda told the Daily in an email. “We are developing educational programming.”

The symposium was directed by three undergraduate students — Maetzener, a sophomore, Maude Plucker, a senior, and Sophie Pearlman, a senior — and two medical students, Anusha Jayaram and Yoelkys Morales, both first-yearsPlucker and Pearlman took Binda’s course “Mass Incarceration and the Literature of Confinement” last fall. According to an Oct. 2017 Daily article, the course runs as an “Inside-Out” prison exchange class composed of Tufts (“outside”) students and incarcerated (“inside”) students. Tufts students travel to a nearby prison to take classes alongside currently incarcerated men. 

Binda selected and contacted the panelists while the student organizers planned the schedule, recruited co-sponsors and handled logistics, according to Maetzener, Plucker and Pearlman.

Both Plucker and Pearlman cite the “Inside-Out” course as their inspiration for putting together the symposium. Pearlman said this motivation stemmed in part from discontent because she felt unable to properly explain to her peers the impact that the “Inside-Out” class had on her, especially regarding her friendships with incarcerated students. Plucker and Pearlman said they wanted to prioritize incarcerated people’s voices in explaining the prison system. They believed this would help foster the same empathy in their classmates as the “Inside-Out” class had fostered in them.

“I think with any form of prison reform or justice or advocacy, the more that you can hear from and learn from people who have experienced it, the richer your knowledge and understanding is of the issue,” Pearlman said. “Our class was an opportunity to connect with the students inside as people rather than as incarcerated individuals, and I think … having the symposium allows others in the Tufts community to do the same.”

The symposium began on Feb. 1 at the Boston Health Sciences campus, where five formerly incarcerated professionals led a panel titled “Prison, Patients, and Healthcare.” Moderated by Assistant Professor of Medicine Alysse Wurcel, the panel focused on healthcare conditions in prison and treatment of incarcerated people.

Later in the day, the symposium moved to the Medford/Somerville campus, commencing with a keynote address by Andrea James, the founder and executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. After a performance by Essence, the all-female a-cappella group focusing on music from the African Diaspora, the night concluded with a screening and discussion of the PBS Frontline documentary “Last Days of Solidarity.”

The symposium resumed the next morning at 9 a.m., starting with breakfast and a reading of letters from Tufts’ incarcerated students. Some of these letters praised the university for its initiative to educate prisoners, while others demanded education and action from those on the outside.

Immediately after the reading, Binda moderated a panel of seven formerly incarcerated individuals, including James, titled “Learning in and in Spite of Prison.” 

Each of the panelists had spent several years in the prison system and each had either taught or taken a college-level course while incarcerated. These panelists highlighted the necessity of education in discouraging released prisoners from recidivating, as well as explaining the difficulty of studying in prison and the demand for committed, empathetic professors.

In the panel discussion, James reflected on the importance of elucidating the prison experience through the voices of those who have lived it. She referred attendees to the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls website to learn more about supporting incarcerated people and policy change.

“The more that institutes of higher education open the door and give a platform for formerly incarcerated people to be heard, the closer we’ll get to changing this system in a meaningful way,” she explained.

A brief performance by the a cappella group S-Factor followed, focusing on songs of encouragement and praise from the African Diaspora. The performance showcased the kind of songs that three members of S-Factor plan to teach to current prisoners as part of a recent TUPIT initiative to create a choir in a prison.

After a break for lunch, the symposium continued with a showing of the seven-minute documentary Solitary Voices, which centers the narratives of people who have been held in solitary confinement for extended periods. The documentary concluded with a panel discussion led by Cassandra Bensahih, the coordinator of Massachusetts Against Solitary Confinement Coalition, which featured Nico Machado, a representative from Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement who has firsthand experience with solitary confinement, Khari Charles, community engagement manager at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and Elizabeth Matos, attorney at MA Prisoners’ Legal Services. 

The final event of the symposium involved three separate breakout workshops. The first focused on changing local legislation to advocate for incarcerated people. The second was led by current Tufts students involved in the Petey Greene Program, which brings Tufts students to prisons to tutor incarcerated individuals. The workshop focused on the experiences Tufts students had while regularly entering a prison and building relationships with inmates. The final panel was a roundtable conversation targeted at Tufts faculty, encouraging them to consider teaching a college-level course in prison.

Speaking on the impact of the symposium, Plucker explained that she hopes it will push Tufts community members to get more involved with TUPIT and other programs that promote the understanding of incarcerated students.

“I’m hoping that people will draw that these [people] are human beings, that injustices have been committed to lead them to where they are, that Tufts community can do something about it and is doing something about it, and that sitting there and listening to the voices that carry these experiences is the first step in that direction,” she said.

Binda said she is pleased that the “outside” students involved in organizing the event could learn from their experiences with prisoners.

“I learn more from the humor, resilience and critique that emerges under these circumstances than I do from almost any other situation in life, and I have now watched my wonderful ‘outside’ Tufts students have similar experiences,” Binda said.