In honor of Abolition Summer, this edition of the WIRE is dedicated to decarceration. Paige Curtis, Culture and Communications Manager, interviews Quinn Williamson, the Academic Director of the Tufts University Prison Initiative of the Tisch College of Civic Life (TUPIT) TUPIT about what it means for Tufts to work with incarcerated communities, how the program came to be, and the program’s views on abolition.
Education can be a catalyst for social and economic advancement for anyone, but especially for the formerly incarcerated. In that spirit, the Tufts University Prison Initiative of the Tisch College of Civic Life (TUPIT) brings Tufts community members together with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, educators, organizers, corrections staff, and scholars of criminal justice to design creative and collaborative responses to mass incarceration and racial injustice. Through their accredited degree program and their reentry network for recently incarcerated folks, TUPIT is dedicated to providing transformative educational experiences that foster student, faculty, and community members’ capacities to become active agents of change in the world.
Paige Curtis: People who are less familiar with Tufts might be surprised that the university has a prison education initiative as part of its commitment to transformative education. Can you talk about what that work looks like in practice?
Quinn Williamson: Our Executive Director Hilary Binda started the project in 2016. [I]n the beginning it was a lecture series she taught in medium security prisons here in Massachusetts. Eventually, she figured there should be more than just one-off lectures, but a whole degree program for folks inside. It wasn’t until 2018 that the program offered our first class as part of a degree program that was two and a half years of coursework from our partners at Bunker Hill Community College.
In that program, the students earn an Associate degree. And, that’s really important because we want to make sure that the students are feeling that real sense of accomplishment that allows them to continue pursuit of a Bachelor’s degree from Tufts University, which is an additional two years on top of that. All of the courses are taught by Tufts University professors. In the creation of the program Hilary and her team spoke with students inside, trying to figure out exactly what it is they wanted from a college experience. The whole structure came from a very collaborative process and involved speaking to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students. Our first cohort of students that started in 2018 will be graduating in December, with their Bachelor’s degree from Tufts University in civic studies, and it’s very exciting.
How does the Tufts Prison Initiative define abolition in the context of this work?
So we view this work as an abolitionist project. There are tons of studies about how education affects recidivism rates. With any amount of education incarcerated people receive inside, their rates of returning to prison drop drastically. Attaining a Bachelor’s degree drops someone’s chances of recidivism to almost zero. So this is decarceration work in action. We get people to reimagine themselves through the pursuit of an education, which in our case focuses [on] civic studies.
Civic studies is this new kind of interdisciplinary discipline, created at Tufts University. It takes from philosophy, sociology, political science, and other fields to invite thinking about how to effectively organize to create change. There’s an aspect of education justice to our work as well. We believe everyone has a right to education, and a right to expand their minds if they so choose. Expansion can happen in a whole bunch of different ways and doesn’t necessarily have to come from higher education. But it’s one way that has definitely impacted our group of students.
What does it mean for Tufts University to offer this program?
Tufts is known for being a liberal institution, and one that has a set of commitments according to their principles of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. The university made the decision to ensure that the students inside our program have the same exact degree that a traditional student would get from the College of Arts and Sciences. This is a game changer in the world of prison education programs. It allows a highly selective institution to make its degree available to the incarcerated population and changes how other institutions on this scale engage with those communities.
It’s important for us to be able to set precedents on what education can be and look like, and say that people inside have every right to this education and have a particular set of experiences that makes them overly-qualified candidates. They can and do contribute to this campus. Some students play the bassoon or have enough time to be in [the] choir and play hockey, or take private language lessons — those students are great, right? They have a lot of qualifications. But let’s also expand [on] how we think about what a qualified student is. Because I know for a fact that our students inside are so qualified and have such brilliant things to bring to the table because everyone does if you give them the opportunity to do it. Education is a resource, it’s a material good that shifts and moves around. This program is an example of redistributing resources — which is so necessary right now in this country.
The prison system is intentionally invisibilized in our society, such that many people live their lives never thinking about the incarcerated population. How did you come into this work?
Growing up I had a lot of cousins. As I got older, I started to see my cousins less and less, due to the prison system. My family wanted to hide that, but when I found out, I started hearing more about their stories. I realized that prison system was something that restructured my sense of family and who I had access to. I think that’s kind of a typical story. You have to be a pretty lucky Black person in this country to not have your family impacted by mass incarceration. So when I attended Howard University, I started an education justice initiative, where I would provide college coaching services for Black students at different public high schools in Washington, D.C. That’s something I did a bit in high school as well, with the middle school students in my hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey.
Later, when I began to explore philosophy in college, I wondered what kind of obligations Black people have in a country that is consistently persecuting them. Eventually I met [TUPIT founder] Hilary through my philosophy work and other professors. When a position opened up on her team, I jumped at the chance to lift people up, and continue giving folks access to the sorts of resources they deserve.●
Paige Curtis is the Culture & Communications Manager at the Boston Ujima Project.
- Rewriting Their Prison Stories, Sentence by Sentence,
- A better path forward for criminal justice: Training and employment for correctional populations, Brookings
- Here’s How Organizing to Abolish the Prison Industrial Complex Works in Practice, Truthout
- Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind,
New York Times