Matt DelSesto ’12 outside the Suffolk County House of Correction. Photos by Caitlin Cunningham.
While Matt DelSesto ’12 was studying human development and philosophy as an undergraduate student in Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, he signed up to participate in the University’s popular PULSE program, which combines classroom learning with service placements in the Boston area. His placement was at the Suffolk County House of Correction, a medium-security prison roughly 10 miles east of Chestnut Hill, and his supervisor was Jim DiZio, the prison’s director of education (and an alumnus of the Lynch School where he earned a graduate degree in 1990).
The placement, along with the PULSE course, ended nine months after it began, but DelSesto’s interest in prison education, and his relationship with DiZio, was just getting started. More than a decade later, DelSesto is the driving force behind two educational programs at the House of Correction, run in collaboration with Boston College: The Inside-Out Program, which brings students from BC and incarcerated individuals together to study criminal justice, and the newly-launched College Pathways Program, which prepares incarcerated men and women to navigate the logistics of higher education upon their release.
A part-time faculty member in the sociology department, DelSesto coordinates and teaches in both programs, strengthening Boston College’s connection with the wider community and opening up access to transformative learning experiences for students of all backgrounds.
“It’s amazing what he’s doing,” said David Goodman, the Lynch School’s associate dean for strategic initiatives and external relations. “None of this would have happened without him—he’s the initiator, the catalyst, and the energy behind it all.”
Building a program
The original Inside-Out Program began 25 years ago in a Pennsylvania prison and has since grown into an international network of more than 200 correctional and higher education partnerships. DelSesto first encountered it while working as a horticultural therapist at the Rikers Island jails in New York, and was struck by the power of the model to promote meaningful dialogue between those with diverse backgrounds and life experiences. When he eventually returned to Boston College to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology, he reached out to Goodman to discuss building an Inside-Out course for the University. His next calls were to DiZio and sociology professor Stephen Pfohl, who were eager to collaborate on the effort, and in 2017, the group was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Hearst Foundations to put their plans into action.
“I thought the whole idea was a good thing but the selling point for me was that incarcerated individuals would actually become enrolled members of the Boston College community,” said DiZio. “That’s powerful. They get BC credits and their transcript is a Boston College transcript.”
A year later, the first iteration of “Inside-Out: Perspectives on Crime, Corrections, and Justice,” appeared in the Boston College course catalog, open to students from the Lynch School, the Woods College of Advancing Studies, and the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, as well as eligible men and women at the Suffolk County House of Correction. The first cohort of 20 students (10 from BC and 10 from the prison) gathered inside the correctional facility in the fall of 2018.
Many weren’t sure what to expect, including Dongjin Vasquez, one of the first “inside” students to enroll, who remembers feeling “unsure about how these Boston College students would view us…[since we have] much different backgrounds compared to them.” While Vasquez had previously been enrolled at Bunker Hill Community College, some of his peers had never taken a college class. Among the Boston College students, some had never set foot in a prison.
“There’s a real hunger for more applicable, vital, and alive versions of learning, where you’re literally set up to get in touch with your assumptions and how different life experiences lead to very different ways of seeing, feeling, and being in the world.”
DelSesto designed the course to be discussion-based, in order to break down barriers and encourage students to share and learn from one another’s experiences, both academic and lived. Since he began teaching the course, it has never failed to achieve both objectives, he said.
“Over the course of the semester it really does become a group that is learning side-by-side as peers,” he said. “People come from different perspectives and that contributes to our understanding of an issue. A lot of inside students have experiences that aren’t reflected in academic research articles and it raises questions that really push everyone’s knowledge.”
Interest in the course among BC students has skyrocketed since it was first introduced, which Goodman attributes partially to a growing interest in criminal justice issues (many students reached out after reading about the Boston College Prison Education Program, which launched in 2019) as well as an appreciation for experiential learning.
“They know the difference between learning about something and learning within something and immersing themselves in it,” Goodman said. “I think there’s a real hunger for more applicable, vital, and alive versions of learning, where you’re literally set up to get in touch with your assumptions and how different life experiences lead to very different ways of seeing, feeling, and being in the world.”
For some students, the course has had a lasting effect on their academic and career trajectories. Encouraged by his experience and the credits he received through Inside-Out, Vasquez re-enrolled at Bunker Hill Community College after his release and earned his associates degree in the spring of 2022. He recently began working as a case manager at Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, where he supports people struggling with mental health and substance use. In the near future, he hopes to pursue a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
“The Inside-Out Program made me believe that people can change the system in place,” he said. “It all starts with changing our perspective on it.”
Sheridan Miller ’20 was inspired to pursue a career in prison education after enrolling in the course in the fall of 2019. As a Lynch School student studying juvenile justice, she was familiar with the school-to-prison pipeline and other topics covered in the curriculum, but it was the unique environment that took her learning to a new level, she said.
“It was one of the best classes I took at BC because of the depth and breadth of the conversations I got to have, especially with my inside peers about their educational journeys and what their day-to-day looks like within the carceral system,” she said. “At BC there’s a lot of emphasis on being men and women for others and doing service, which is great, but sometimes you’re disconnected from the people you're really hoping to serve. This class wasn’t service, you were just having conversations.”
Two years after graduating, Miller is the assistant director of policy and research at the New England Board of Higher Education, where she leads a grant-funded initiative convening stakeholders from across the region involved in prison higher education programs. The goal is to “get everyone at the same table” in order to streamline and improve services for incarcerated students prior to the 2023-24 academic year, when they will become eligible to receive Pell Grants from the federal government.
Last fall, Miller enrolled in a master’s program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she’s studying education policy. She’s not exactly sure what her professional future will look like, but knows she wants to continue to improve and expand programs that bring higher education to students behind bars.
“It’s the biggest passion I have in education policy,” she said. “A lot of that is thanks to the Lynch School and the real experience I got with the Inside-Out Program.”
One of the biggest challenges Sheridan faces in her current role is also one that DelSesto’s newest program, the College Pathways Program, is designed to address: how to ensure incarcerated students who enroll in higher education programs reap the benefit of their experience after they’re released.
At the Suffolk County House of Correction, all prisoners are serving terms of less than three years, which isn't enough time to earn a degree. In the past, DiZio has partnered with an outside organization to provide college counseling services, but after the arrangement fizzled during the COVID-19 pandemic, he approached DelSesto and Goodman about starting something more sustainable.
“Our response was ‘Of course,’” recalled Goodman. “And then Matt does what he does so well: he just ran with it. I think it’s a great example of listening to our partner’s needs.”
The College Pathways Program launched in the summer of 2022 as an eight-week non-credit course designed to provide practical information about the college admissions and application process. Each week explores a different topic—from financial aid to selecting a major—and participants are encouraged to consider how college fits in with their long-term personal and professional goals. Twelve students have already received certificates of completion, and a second session is underway.
For DelSesto, teaching the course has been a natural extension of his work with Inside-Out, where inside students often come to him for advice on their educational futures. Compared with their BC classmates, who have access to the Career Center and a slew of advising options, incarcerated students have limited resources.
“There’s clearly a need for space to talk informally about these college logistics,” he said. “We’re trying to do more to really formalize the college advising and mentoring structure, so this course is a big step towards that.”
DelSesto keeps touch with some of the students who have passed through his programs (Vasquez has returned as a guest speaker on multiple occasions) and takes pride in the accomplishments of “inside” and “outside” alumni. He continues to hold two sets of office hours: one at the House of Correction and another from his office at BC, while seeking out new ways to connect both worlds (during the pandemic, he launched a virtual film and speaker series related to topics contained in the Inside-Out curriculum, and he’s kept it going ever since).
“I don’t know many people who could do what he does,” reflected DiZio, who has worked in prison education since 1992. “He’s quiet, but committed. He’s passionate, but he doesn’t overdo it. He just really cares.”
Alix Hackett | University Communications | January 2023