Merrimack professors offer college courses to people who are in prison at Essex County Correctional Center. The program started in fall of 2016 and has had 38 student participants, with 9 students currently enrolled. Participants are able to earn college credits from the classes that they take. This program provides access to education to individuals that are historically underserved by society.
The jail staff screens the prisoners to see who would be a good candidate for the class.
Brittnie Aiello, an Associate Professor in Criminology who teaches the classes in jail, has been doing research in prisons and teaching in the jail for several years.
“You’re in a place where the norms are very rigid, yet there is a relaxation of norms so the class dynamic is very different,” said Aiello.
Many local community colleges will come in and try and help the incarcerated students to start a path where they can continue college after they get out of prison.
“A lot of the students want to continue onto college after, but there are still a lot of obstacles. I do think for a lot of them it gives them hope for when they get out because they realize that they can do college work and they are capable of succeeding in college,” Aiello said. “I hope they realize they are capable of doing other things. Whatever it is that got them to jail that there is still hope for their future.”
Aiello also spoke a lot about the abilities of the incarcerated students, saying, “You learn about people more. They are more willing to share their stories and have you listen to them. The best writer I’ve ever had was an incarcerated student.”
Emma Duffy-Comparone, an Assistant Professor in English, also teaches Creative Writing to incarcerated students, which allows her to hear their stories.
“I really like teaching in non-traditional environments, and I find this very healing and fulfilling. I have seen that the students really benefit from these classes and its great to hear their stories,” Duffy-Comparone said. “I think the main difference is just teaching adults versus college students. I think the level of desire is very different. The incarcerated students really want to get as much as they can out of the class and they’re really looking forward to this class.”
Duffy-Comparone says teaching at the jail affects her differently than when she teaches at Merrimack. “When I get in the car and go home after a day at Merrimack I can go home and not think about it, but when I get in the car after a day at the jail I’m thinking about it more because I know that my students at Merrimack are just going back to their dorms but the inmates are still in jail.”
Merrimack’s Augustinian tradition and mission emphasizes the pursuit of knowledge, compassion and service to others, and many on campus believe that teaching incarcerated individuals fulfills that mission.