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BC Behind Bars
An innovative prisoner-education program is helping inmates earn a Boston College degree.
The first time Christian Miranda stepped on the Boston College campus as a student, he was fifty-three years old and had just been released from prison. It was a frigid morning in February 2023, but the Boston native barely noticed as he looked up at the stately tower of Gasson Hall. “It was like I went back to being eighteen years old, fresh out of high school,” he recalled recently.
The moment may have marked Miranda’s first trip to the Heights, but his relationship with the University had begun three years earlier. Miranda, who’d been convicted on drug charges, was serving a twenty-year sentence at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Shirley, Massachusetts, which is known as MCI-Shirley. In 2020, Miranda was one of sixteen MCI-Shirley inmates accepted that year into the Boston College Prison Education Program.
The program, known as the PEP, was launched in 2019 with funding from an anonymous donor. It became a member of the Bard Prison Initiative’s Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, a national network of prison education programs. Each week, participants in the PEP take roughly ten hours of classes with university faculty, attend office hours and tutoring sessions, complete assignments and group projects, and take part in extracurricular activities. And with enough credits, they become eligible for a bachelor’s degree in Applied Liberal Arts issued by the university itself.
So far, sixty-three prisoners have entered the PEP, which is free to attend, and the first diplomas will be awarded at a graduation ceremony inside MCI-Shirley this fall. Three students, including Miranda, have been released from prison mid-program and are continuing their education at BC’s Woods College of Advancing Studies.
“When we’re thinking about how to live out our mission at Boston College, part of it is engaging with communities like those at MCI-Shirley,” said Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley, who helped to launch the program and has taught several classes in it. Some of the earliest examples of Jesuit education took place in prisons in the sixteenth century, he noted. “It’s wonderful for me as a historian to think about how Jesuit work over the centuries has connected with the incarcerated and tried to open up possibilities and give hope to those in prison.”
Within MCI-Shirley, a medium- and minimum-security men’s prison, interest in the PEP has been high from the start. Nearly one hundred prisoners applied for the inaugural class, submitting a personal statement and academic essay, and sixteen were eventually accepted. Every fall, the admissions team selects a new cohort of similar size.
Nurudeen Alabi was serving a seventeen-year sentence after a manslaughter conviction when he heard about the PEP in 2019. He asked Isabel Lane, the program’s director at the time, what made it different from other prison education programs he’d been part of. She told him that, in every way possible, the PEP courses would contain the same material taught to students on campus in Chestnut Hill. “That’s what I wanted, and every professor kept up to that,” Alabi said. “I felt like I was really on a college campus.”
Alabi completed ten classes as part of the program prior to being released from MCI-Shirley in 2022. Each class took place inside the prison classroom, its beige walls adorned with BC banners and a framed portrait of St. Ignatius. Alabi enrolled last year in Woods College, where he’s majoring in business. Thanks in part to the forty credits he earned in prison, he expects to graduate in 2025. “It changed the trajectory of my life,” Alabi said. “Growing up in inner city Boston, education wasn’t a big thing, but being in the PEP showed me that there’s a life outside of your neighborhood, your city, your state, that education can bring you to.”
In four years, the program’s offerings have grown from three classes in introductory philosophy, algebra, and writing to an eight-course catalogue that mirrors the Woods College Applied Liberal Arts curriculum. Students take a mix of liberal arts courses and professional classes designed to familiarize them with the modern work landscape. A course in entrepreneurship taught by former Zipcar executive Brian Harrington ’89 has become one of the program’s most popular classes, with students designing and pitching an original business idea for their final presentation.
Christian Miranda had been asking for college-level courses to be taught at the prison for years, and sitting in classes like Harrington’s with fifteen other students provided the intellectual challenge he’d been craving. “It refocused me,” he said. He also loved the shared sense of purpose felt by everyone inside the MCI classroom. Any rivalries were left at the door, Miranda said, making room for productive class discussions and group projects. “It was like a family,” he said. “The program forced you to be in such close proximity that you realized you had more in common than not.”
More than thirty faculty members from all corners of campus have signed up to teach in the PEP, submitting PowerPoint slide deck lesson plans to the Department of Correction for approval and driving an hour west to MCI-Shirley every week for classes. After passing through metal detectors, they teach three-hour sessions before making the return trip to Chestnut Hill.
“I’ve never met a more motivated group in my life,” said BC Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students and Programs Julia Devoy, an applied psychologist who has taught two courses in the PEP. “They don’t have internet or email or Google Slides and yet their projects are just beyond what you could imagine. You can see the desire to learn.”
Quigley signed up to teach in the PEP in spring 2022, juggling his duties as provost with lesson planning and grading. His course, Politics and Ideas in American History, explored seminal political documents, including Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and the Federalist Papers. “If you went in at 6:15, when class started, and asked one question, the men would carry it to 9:15,” Quigley recalled. “It was one of the greatest teaching experiences of my career.”
Patrick Conway, MA’12, PhD’22, who has worked in prison education for more than a decade and took over as program director in 2021, is excited about the program’s growth. Three BC PhD students now visit the prison once a week to offer academic support, and a new PEP student committee is coming up with ideas of its own, such as a tutoring group that helps fellow prisoners study for the GED or enroll in the community college program. “They really care about the PEP,” Conway said. “We’re putting in a lot of effort to make this happen, but the students play a huge part. They’re super invested in Boston College.”