Although Massachusetts became an outlier in 2021 by choosing to vaccinate incarcerated people for COVID-19 alongside essential medical personnel and other high priority populations, there remains much more work to be done to support this population, most of whom will be released from state custody and return to their roles as parents, friends, and neighbors in our communities.
Massachusetts state officials who recognized the public health crisis both inside and outside prison walls should be commended, but vaccinations are coming too late for too many. To date, 3,886 incarcerated people in the state have tested positive for COVID-19, with major outbreaks in both state and county facilities. Since November, 296 incarcerated people — more than half the prison population — tested positive at Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord, alongside 75 correctional officers and other staff. We follow this news with concern, as Emerson College runs the Emerson Prison Initiative at MCI Concord, where it provides a pathway for a bachelor’s degree for incarcerated students.
Vaccination may finally provide relief for the thousands of incarcerated people who are unable to maintain social distance from either other incarcerated people or the correctional staff. But misinformation about the pandemic, combined with the historic exploitation of communities of color in medical experimentation, has made some incarcerated people unsure about trusting the vaccine. Repairing a broken social contract will require more than including incarcerated people in early vaccinations. The state must also commit to providing transformational opportunities for incarcerated people through expanded educational access, among other remedies.
When all college programming in Massachusetts state prisons were suspended statewide in November, educational programs such as EPI resorted to atypical modes of instruction to finish out the semester; we have not yet been able to start spring semester classes. Dedicated volunteers and staff both at Emerson and the Department of Correction compiled and distributed extensive packets that contain instructional content and assignments to make up for the lack of Internet connectivity or ability to gather in person. Though our students have had their lives turned upside down by moving cells and cellmates because of quarantine, many continued to send in impressive work, despite 23 hour-a-day lockdowns and other restrictions over the last few months.
Many people end up incarcerated because of educational inequity, which is connected to a range of structural issues: residential segregation and housing costs, poverty, racism, over-policing of communities of color, lack of access to health care, and lack of culturally relevant curriculums. The pandemic exacerbates these challenges and further denies opportunities for ongoing rehabilitation. Moreover, we should work to undercut a post-COVID-19 surge in incarceration if the economy continues to decline and cuts to social programs continue.
For Emerson Prison Initiative students and others in college prison programs, access to higher education while incarcerated is a lifeline, and one the state of Massachusetts should take seriously. Governor Baker and the Department of Correction should let colleges expand the number of students admitted into college programs, a timely issue with the recent reopening of Pell Grants to incarcerated people. DOC could also dedicate more classroom space to college programs, ensure that students who want to remain enrolled while incarcerated have the option to stay at the facility where they are enrolled, and facilitate reentry success by allowing college programs to maintain post-release contact with students.
Not only is college a path toward mental freedom for incarcerated students, but it also provides a strong bang for the buck in terms of reducing recidivism and providing incarcerated people with opportunities for formal sector employment when they become returning citizens.
Massachusetts has not responded to COVID-19 with decarceration as recommended under the Committee for Public Counsel Services v. Chief Justice of the Trial Court, and pandemic protocols inside prisons aren’t always complied with. But the state can still do right by this population and our community.
When this public health crisis is over, states should continue and increase access to college education for incarcerated students, alongside advocacy for best practices in public health and human rights protections. EPI, one of many college-in-prison programs in the United States, is a structural intervention to increase opportunities for a dignified life. The new normal, post-pandemic, should be better than the old one for all our students and their communities. If democracies are judged on how they treat their most vulnerable citizens, the treatment of incarcerated people before and during the pandemic leaves us with major room to improve.
Lee Pelton is president of Emerson College and incoming president and CEO of The Boston Foundation. Mneesha Gellman is director of the Emerson Prison Initiative.