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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, May 19, 2024

Everything you need to know about how Tufts helps with prison reentry — and how you can help too

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The first graduating cohort from the TUPIT program, January 2024.

In movies, the process of someone being incarcerated often gets more attention than how they return to society. The entry to prison is often portrayed as a rugged odyssey, while the reentry to society is simply reduced to someone walking out the prison gates to a car with a friend waiting. So what does reentry actually look like? And how has Tufts assisted with that process?

Since 1994, federal Pell Grants — government funding that helps students pay for college — have been barred for incarcerated college students. Effective July 2023, they have been reinstated for approved programs like the Tufts University Prison Initiative, which offers higher education in prison and which will now be able to access this financial support.

These approved programs vary greatly, so this article will mainly provide an overview of TUPIT — which leads reentry assistance efforts at Tufts — and how you, as a Tufts student, can get involved.

Hilary Binda, TUPIT’s executive director and senior lecturer in Tufts’ Civic Studies Program, founded the prison initiative in 2016.

In the decades before, Binda worked with youth and adults in prisons and schools in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. As of 2016, Tufts had no initiative assisting reentry, so Binda, informed by her experience with the carceral system, created TUPIT in collaboration with the School of Arts and Sciences faculty members, the Massachusetts Department of Correction and the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.

TUPIT was founded with the intention of providing incarcerated individuals with the opportunity to pursue an associate and/or a bachelor's degree in prison. Now, eight years after its founding, TUPIT has grown into a tree with many more branches. The program has grown to include a journal for incarcerated writers around the U.S., a program called MyTERN which provides practical reentry resources and events that raise awareness for this cause at Tufts and beyond. TUPIT accepted its third new cohort in December 2023, and 12 students from the first cohort that started in 2018 just graduated in January.  

But all of this is still rather abstract. To see how TUPIT works in action, it can be helpful to see how a cohort of incarcerated students would participate in the program from enrollment to graduation.

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Courtesy Hilary Binda

Binda teaching an Inside-Out course at MCI-Shirley.

As with any higher-education program, students apply for TUPIT. Information sessions are held within the incarceration facilities TUPIT collaborates with (which include the maximum, medium and minimum security facilities at Souza Baranowski Correctional Center, Massachusetts Correctional Institute atConcord and Northeastern Correctional Center) and applications are sent out. The application includes a form for basic student information and two essay questions.

Upon collecting applications, a panel of administrators and professors from TUPIT conduct interviews over two days, and each student is asked to complete an in-person writing project. By December, the results are released, and approximately 15 students enroll in the first part of the TUPIT program.

What are the available degrees? At TUPIT, each student must first pursue a two-year liberal arts associate degree provided by the Bunker Hill Community College (to clarify, the teachers are Tufts professors; Bunker Hill only provides the degree because associate degrees are not available at Tufts.)

Upon completion, students have the option to apply to the Tufts Civic Studies bachelor’s degree program, also taught at the prisons. For both degrees, though the course options are limited, each student still must obtain the same number of credits, fulfill the same requirements for their degrees and be held to the same academic standards as non-incarcerated students.

This might seem like an odd system: Why can’t the students obtain a bachelor’s degree right away if it’s available? By getting an associate degree, even if the student leaves prison after two years, they’ll still have a completed associate degree instead of an incomplete bachelor’s degree.

Besides technicalities, it’s equally important to understand the challenges of pursuing these degrees within prisons and how TUPIT works to support students in that process.

Prisons are disruptive environments, and students often deal with external stressors along with their education, such as preparing for trial, managing relations with police and other prisoners and coping with separation from family and friends. Tyler, a current TUPIT student at MCI-Concord, described his experience.

Outside of TUPIT, this year has been beyond personally challenging. I lost someone very close to me and I have a relative who’s experiencing serious struggles with school and the criminal legal system. Trying to find space to grieve and be present for my struggling family member has been beyond emotionally overwhelming at times. I’m balancing that with the simple struggle of trying to navigate an institutional space that can [be] quite hostile and antagonistic at times,” he wrote.

TUPIT, however, offers several avenues of support.

Firstly, as Quinn Williamson, the academic director and program administrator at TUPIT, explained, the program often helps reduce prison sentences. We are actively shortening sentences … Our director has spoken at multiple court sentencing hearings where the judge has asked her to tell [the court] about the program and the impact that she sees the program having on the particular student,” Williamson said. 

Binda also explained how the program works to bring incarcerated students to lower-security prisons and the significance of that change.

“We have worked with the Department of Correction … to be able to bring people who are in our class up at [the maximum security facility, Souza], down to a lower security level. So they have more freedom, more capacity to learn. … And then we have this on-campus program. That pathway from max to medium to minimum to the campus is unique [to TUPIT],” she said.

TUPIT’s faculty and undergraduate teaching assistants also provide academic support that helps students persevere through their studies. Currently, professors teach TUPIT classes in addition to their existing classes on the Medford/Somerville campus, and every TA dedicates 6–8 hours each week to support student learning in a class they have already excelled in, provide feedback on essays and sometimes lead recitations.

Last but not least, TUPIT also has a one-year program that provides students with the necessary resources for societal reentry.

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Courtesy Hilary Binda

MyTERN students in conversation with Binda and Williamson.

MyTERN, held on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus, is composed of 13–15 formerly incarcerated students each year. TUPIT students automatically gain a spot in the program, but other formerly incarcerated individuals can apply too. Students don’t need to have graduated from TUPIT to enroll in MyTERN. As long as they are no longer incarcerated, they can pursue the undergraduate certificate in civic studies from Tufts.

Unlike the rest of TUPIT, MyTERN also provides opportunities for networking, which are extremely helpful for individuals coming home from long sentences.

Students take courses in civic studies that focus on social justice, policy and local government and storytelling through podcasting and public speaking. Some MyTERN courses focus more on practical skills such as technological and financial literacy as well as restorative justice practices. This provides students with the necessary toolkit to secure employment and maintain a sustainable lifestyle.

In MyTERN, students also join a supportive community. Within the program, students get to network with organizations and potential employers. David Delvalle, a MyTERN graduate and Tufts Civic Studies bachelor’s student, spoke on how the program helped with his employment.

“The networking aspect was huge. I got my job working at Haley House as a program manager through a TUPIT speech. I [was invited] to Tufts Medical Center to go speak to a bunch of medical students about food insecurity, and Haley House was on the panel next to me, and they came out and offered me a job on the spot. The job led to me getting — I was homeless — my one-bedroom brownstone. … That changed my life, he said.

The other crucial parts of the community are peers and mentors. Prison is, by design, isolated from society. Upon reentry, people find that society has changed, systems have been revamped and new technologies have become prevalent. In this disorienting new world, it can be easy to get lost and return to bad influences. At MyTERN, students find community members who can guide them through the convoluted processes of obtaining crucial reentry resources, such as employment, housing, transportation and childcare, making the right path an accessible option.

Jody Boykins, a current student, described how the community of MyTERN — as well as TUPIT in general — impacted his life.

“I came home from incarceration in 2020. [After] my first incarceration, I immediately went back to everything I knew I was not supposed to because I had no support, I had nothing to fall back on,” he said. “[At MyTERN and TUPIT, however,] I’m around a whole bunch of people who can feel what I’ve been through. … When you’re feeling down, you have that bad day, you have a number to call, you don’t have to call the local drug dealer, you don’t have to call somebody who ruined your life. I call Hillary now, I call David, I call people that are really powerful presences in this world.”

At TUPIT, higher education in prison begins with an application. Upon acceptance, students work towards earning an associate degree and can then go for a bachelor’s. During or after the bachelor’s program, students can choose to enter the MyTERN program. Beyond MyTERN, some students continue their education at Tufts, while others complete their degrees at Bunker Hill Community College. However, regardless of their path, the network they’ve built remains a phone call away. As Williamson explained, No one is gone from the community once they graduate; everyone is still supported.” 

To become involved in assisting the reentry process, Tufts students have three main options. The information and links may look like a lot — and they are — but treat this more as a helpful appendix to find the most interesting opportunities.

In Prison

With TUPIT, involvement works in two ways: 1) joining an Inside-Out course and 2) becoming a TA. Inside-Out courses are classes with half Tufts students and half incarcerated students, taught at prisons. Alternatively, you can also apply to become a TA for a TUPIT course.

On Campus

For MyTERN, the options are similar: 1) joining a MyTERN class and 2) becoming a MyTERN TA. Similar to the Inside-Out program, there are courses in MyTERN with mixed cohorts, only these are taught on the Medford campus. You can also apply to be a TA or tech tutor (recommended that you first attend a MyTERN course beforehand).

Tutoring

You can also become a tutor with the Petey Greene Program. PGP is a national nonprofit organization that operates independently from TUPIT but has worked with TUPIT extensively to make its in-prison programs possible. PGP tutors can choose to tutor at a facility near them one or more times a week for one hour each time. PGP is a great option for those who are first engaging in supporting the reentry process, because there are relatively fewer work hours per week, but the work and the community remain rewarding.

If you want to learn more about the cause, you have a few more options: 1) follow @tuftsprisoninitiative and @peteygreeneprogram on Instagram, 2) sign up for the mailing list and 3) listen to the MyTERN Conversations podcast — “conversations about life before, during, and after incarceration — available on Spotify and from the website.

Some of these applications may seem dauntingly complex, and you might be unsure about your chances of being accepted. You might wonder if you’re the right fit to help or not. You probably have more questions like these that this article didn’t answer. But before you become deterred by the paperwork and technicalities, explore the programs’ websites a little more, ask the contacts provided above, find friends to join you and address your concerns. Become part of the support network for reentry. Your help can touch more lives than you might imagine.