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Engaging Incarcerated Populations During Covid-19

May 18, 2020

Confined living conditions and a constant flow of people in and out make prisons amplifiers for infectious diseases such as Covid-19. Keeping these populations safe while also maintaining avenues for long-term empowerment are critical as we emerge out of the pandemic into a changed world.

Education can be one of these avenues for long term empowerment, as demonstrated by college in prison programs throughout the country. According to a 2018 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 83% of released state prisoners returned to prison within 9 years of their release, and 44% returned within the first year. According to a Rand Corporation study, educational programming in prisons reduces recidivism by 43%. Beyond highlighting the positive effects of access to education in prisons, these statistics also reflect some of the major challenges of reentry, such as finding employment, re-building relationships with loved ones, and overcoming the stigma of incarceration.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2019, 72% of adults over 25 with a college degree were employed, showcasing the importance of higher education in today’s job market. Therefore, the ability to earn a college degree while in prison better equips returning citizens to compete in the job market.

Mneesha Gellman, Director of Emerson Prison Initiative and Political Science Professor at Emerson College stresses the importance of building an intellectual community through higher education programs, a factor that has become even more important in the wake of Covid-19. While Emerson faculty are no longer able to teach in person, students are continuing to self-facilitate classes, nominating a facilitator and notetaker for discussions. Since MCI Concord, the site for Emerson’s Prison Initiative, is a non-internet prison, students have also shifted towards writing and mailing in all of their assignments. Despite the challenges these shifts present, the intellectual solidarity created within this small cohort of committed students allows the program to continue during the pandemic.

While the Emerson Prison Initiative is working to support people on the inside, Emerson faculty are participating in other efforts to support people once they are released. Upon reentering society ex-prisoners are stigmatized. Rashin Fahandej — a transdisciplinary artist, filmmaker, and assistant professor of emerging media at Emerson College — explores these stereotypes of masculinity and the stigma of incarceration through her work, connecting formerly incarcerated fathers and federal probation officers with their children through digital storytelling.

Fahandej taught a partnered studio in the spring semester that connected Emerson students, federal probation officers, and formerly incarcerated fathers to explore questions of fatherhood and masculinity. The class began work on a virtual reality (VR) project, but when the campus was shut down, it quickly pivoted to an augmented reality (AR) project. Each student focused on creating a postcard with a QR code that would activate videos, photos, and audio messages provided by the fathers and probation officers.

Many participants expressed the ability to share stories they would not have otherwise been comfortable sharing if not for the work of the students. While presenting these stories to their families in the physical space of a VR experience may have been challenging for some, the distance provided by the AR postcards allowed for greater honesty for some fathers.

While both the Emerson Prison Initiative and co-creation AR project each transitioned very differently into socially distant modes, they each demonstrate partnerships between higher education and incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people focused on empowering and supporting these populations.

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