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Pushing for Prison Education

Brett Iarrobino

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The necessity of educating inmates is a topic that has caused fierce debate within the last decade, but for Professor Jill McDonough, the answer is as clear as the memories she has gleaned from her time as a prison educator herself.

She easily recalls teaching a course to prisoners on Shakespeare, and a particular student firmly believing he would be forced to drop the class when he failed to comprehend the complex language; however, she predicted that he would succeed. Just as McDonough predicted, her pupil not only deciphered “Othello” with great ease, but found himself immersed in the writing, and would insist on playing the titular lead every class.

McDonough cites these life-changing experiences, which she has observed during her teaching in men’s, women’s, and juvenile prisons, as one of the many benefits of prison teaching programs.

Beginning her career in Boston University’s (BU) prison education program, McDonough made a name for herself amongst inmates as a professor with a backbone, teaching courses that forced students to think critically and refused to coddle them. During her 13-year tenure with the organization, McDonough began to understand how much of a cathartic experience learning was to prisoners, especially those who faced a lifetime behind bars.

“Prison is where some people live,” she explained to her audience in the Dana Commons. “Everyone deserves the chance to lose themselves in their work.”

One of McDonough’s favorite classroom topics is dissecting poetic meter – the process of unraveling a difficult verse or sonnet can take hours, and gives students time to dwell on the subject matter.

Also speaking at the lecture was Arthur Bembury, a former student of McDonough’s in the BU prison program, and now the Executive Director of the College Behind Bars Mentoring Program.

Though he was warned not to take her class, he registered for McDonough’s English seminar, and was immediately pushed to his academic limits.

“An A in my opinion was a B in hers,” he said, recalling a particular essay he wrote that the two still disagree on to this day. Despite some struggles with his courses, Bembury found his perspective growing and changing during his enrollment in the program, trading his grim thoughts on his capacity to succeed beyond imprisonment for a newfound hope for a better future.

The dignity and humanity the penal institution stripped from him was regained when he attended classes. Intimidation from the guards was replaced with civil discord between a professor and a pupil. For Bembury, these were the moments that did not feel like prison.

That’s not to say the experience was entirely smooth for the students or the teachers.

McDonough can recall numerous absences that were due to confrontations between inmates, and Bembury remembers the strenuous task of balancing his immersion with academic life with prison culture; he was handed a frequent reminder of his place in society through the line,“you’re in jail, not Yale.” Complications also arose in terms of the materials presented to prisoners, preventing them from writing their essays and other assignments on anything but pencil and paper. Nonetheless, both McDonough and Bembury had nothing but praise for the educational organizations they both are involved in, and cited concrete evidence of the success as well – only two percent of the program’s graduates found themselves returning to prison, compared to the nationwide return rate of 67 percent.

In an open forum held during the few remaining minutes of the lecture, audience members began to ask if Clark was looking into forming a prison education program, or offering similar curriculums to non federal penal facilities.

The enthusiastic response to the concept of educating the imprisoned only reiterates Bembury’s statement, “you cannot incarcerate someone without giving them the resources needed to be successful when they return to society.”

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Pushing for Prison Education