Liberal Arts in Prison: Emerson Prison Initiative Launch

Originally posted by Lucie Periera on Common Ground Oct. 5

This semester, one of Professor Mneesha Gellman’s sections of IN154, Power & Privilege, is a little different. Instead of a classroom in the Walker Building, this course takes place at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Concord, a medium security men’s prison – but those enrolled are Emerson students just the same.

Photo of MCI Concord courtesy of

Professor Gellman is an assistant professor of political science as well as the director and founder of the Emerson Prison Initiative (EPI). She was inspired to found EPI by her own student volunteer experiences with the Bard Prison Initiative, the largest program of its kind in the United States. With its inaugural EPI course underway, Emerson joins the ranks of eleven other colleges in the Consortium for Liberal Arts in Prison. The aim of the Consortium is to provide a liberal arts education to inmate students, with the opportunity to earn a degree from the institution that is providing classes.

“We aim to offer identical courses to our main campus offerings,” Gellman said at the launch event for the program. EPI offers Emerson courses taught by Emerson faculty, and incarcerated students earn Emerson credits – and hopefully, as the program expands, an Emerson degree. Gellman’s work with EPI is fueled by her belief that “Liberal arts education is transformative in and of itself.”

There are, however, a few differences when students are learning in a prison environment. “Students inside are using donated dictionaries,” Gellman explained, “There is no internet in MCI Concord.” Though there are challenges, Gellman seems confident in her students’ abilities and dedication. Each of the twenty students went through an application process before being admitted into the course. Applicants had to have a GED or high school diploma, and took a timed essay exam that was graded by Emerson faculty. Forty of these applicants were then interviewed, and half were offered a spot in the class.

At the EPI launch event, Dr. Craig Steven Wilder gave the keynote address. Dr. Wilder, a historian and professor at MIT, is known for his most recent book Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. Wilder began his career as a community organizer in the South Bronx, and is now a senior fellow at the Bard Prison Initiative. Wilder’s talk, titled “Permanent Injustice: Residential Incarceration and School Segregation,” outlined the long history of racial segregation, spatial incarceration, and redlining practices in New York City, connecting gentrification to incarceration. Showing maps and statistics of New York neighborhoods, Wilder explained the policies and codes used by developers, politicians, real estate agents, and others to create desirable, white neighborhoods and poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods. Wilder described the schools in these segregated neighborhoods as barely more than “warehouses” for holding Black and Latino populations until these students age out of the school system. These students are not offered college prep courses, as is standard in higher income schools, and fewer than 20% of them graduate, though they continue to show up to school. Wilder called this “the human cost” of these racist and discriminatory policies.

“If we make education a commodity and sell it to the richest among us, then we shouldn’t be shocked that there are some who will never receive it,” Wilder said. From so-called “million dollar blocks” where arrest rates skyrocket in low-income areas, to gentrification that pushes poor black and brown people out of their homes, these systemic issues force our most disadvantaged citizens into prisons that are the most populated in the world.

In light of this, Wilder said he is “delighted that Emerson is taking this step,” an important one toward striving for justice and equity in our larger community.

“I think universities should be reckless in the pursuit of social justice,” Wilder said, ending his keynote address, “At least as reckless as we are in the pursuit of revenue.”