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Professor Erin Greenwell Highlights Lessons from MMC’s Prison Education Programs at Chronicle of Higher Education Forum

With thousands of incarcerated people set to gain access to college programs under the FAFSA Simplification Act, educators across the country are seeking guidance on serving the population from those who have long done the work—like Marymount Manhattan.

For more than 20 years, MMC has been the sole degree-granting institution at Bedford Hills, New York’s maximum-security correctional facility for women; in 2019, it began partnering with Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison to award degrees at the medium-security facility Taconic. All told, the College has awarded more than 300 degrees through its prison education programs since 1997.

Its higher ed counterparts got a glimpse into those programs last month at a virtual forum, The Faculty Experience With Incarcerated Students, organized by The Chronicle of Higher Education. The talk featured Erin Greenwell, MMC’s Ferraro Fellow in Prison Education and an associate communication and media arts professor, alongside educators from the University of Baltimore and Portland State University. They addressed an audience of administrators and faculty, more than 40 percent of whom said they had no or just some experience teaching inside correctional facilities.

Incarcerated students have largely been barred from using federally-funded Pell Grants to help pay for college courses since the passage of a 1994 bill, leaving higher education institutions to rely on private funding or state grants to cover costs. (New York State ended a decades-long ban on tuition assistance for incarcerated students last year.) Many programs closed as a result. Indeed, MMC and partnering schools intervened in 1997 to keep college education programs alive at Bedford Hills.

But with research consistently demonstrating that education programs reduce recidivism—among released graduates of MMC’s programs, the recidivism rate is virtually zero—Pell eligibility was restored to justice-involved people under the FAFSA Simplification Act in July 2023. And experts predict that the number of colleges offering prison-education programs nationwide will subsequently increase.

Greenwell told forum attendees that many incarcerated students view college education programs as a reprieve—a safe place to build community, better themselves, and have their humanity affirmed. “As soon as they [leave their classrooms and head back to the facility’s main quarters], they’re in a punitive system,” she said. “As soon as they come into my class, they’re students.”

That, she said, coupled with barriers that students on the outside typically don’t face—for example, incarcerated students in New York State cannot access the internet—brings an elevated sense of urgency to weekly instruction.

Greenwell, who has taught screenwriting and animation electives at Bedford Hills, recalled feeling that intensity in her first class at the facility. “I’ve taught for 20 years on the outside, and the first class I taught at Bedford Hills was one of the best first classes I ever had because you know you only have 1.5 hours, and then you don’t see them for a week, so you really use all your intuition to get everyone connected quickly,” she said.

But as soon as she got on the train home, she experienced a roller coaster of emotion. “I crashed physically and mentally,” she said. “Because you’re still in a system where you have no idea what is happening to the students you work with until the next week. But you build the stamina toward those highs and lows quickly.”

Given the technological restrictions, Greenwell told forum attendees they must be prepared to innovate. For example, teaching an animation class with no internet access meant that Greenwell couldn’t rely on a cloud-based program, Adobe After Effects, in her instruction. Instead, she had to implement a workaround: after some research, she discovered an open-source software with similar functionality, and IT was able to install it directly on desktops in the Bedford Hills Learning Center. The effort was worth it, she said, when she saw students making heavy use of it and throwing themselves into their class projects.

“I always want to do more with more [technology],” she said. “At the same time, [teaching students who are incarcerated] has made my teaching very flexible … and has often made me a better researcher or communicator in explaining concepts differently because I can’t rely on the established ways I’m used to.”

Greenwell explained to attendees that, as Marymount Manhattan’s Ferraro Fellow in Prison Education, she works to expand mutual learning and connections between MMC students at 71st Street, Bedford Hills, and Taconic. That includes managing shared projects across locations, such as MMC’s biennial academic conference, Crossing Borders, and the annual Stand Up, Speak Out Arts and Social Justice Festival, which features collaborative work by students at Bedford Hills and 71st Street.

She said that one of the most exciting aspects of making those connections has been seeing how students in and outside the justice system come to recognize each other as peers. “[You see] identities fall away. The 71st Street students might be perceived as being more sheltered or not having as much life experience, and so they have their own insecurities,” she said. “And the Bedford students are worried that [they’re] going to be seen as the worst decision in [their] life … but if you make it about the work, then it bridges how disparate the actual lived realities are.”

In the end, Greenwell’s message for faculty and administrators interested in working with incarcerated students could be boiled down to a simple sentence: Don’t spend too much time worrying about the setting or the limitations. Just show up for students.

“Every facility’s different, obviously, but one of the best things the director of the [Bedford Hills] College Program, Aileen Baumgartner, could have said to me, when I would ask her, ‘What about this, what about that,’ was ‘Erin, just come. Just come, Erin.’” Professors, she said, will tap into what they love most about teaching and, with creativity and sensitivity, can be a part of the academic community of students, professors, and administrators working together toward personal growth and empowerment.


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Published: November 20, 2023