This fall, through the Legal Studies Practicum (LGLS-145A) with Prof. and Chair of the Legal Studies Department Rosalind Kabrhel, my classmates and I were able to get involved with a diverse array of hands-on experiential learning opportunities. Through this practicum, we were able to experience the importance of educational interventions in the communities we worked with, as a way to marginally counteract systemic disadvantages. The hands-on approach to experiential learning allowed us to synthesize and apply the themes of this course’s readings through a critical and concrete lens.

The class is formulated similarly to a seminar in that it is composed of a small cohort of students who gather weekly to discuss course readings as well as share updates on their program. Our discussions are student-centered with reflections on readings that include Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” articles on the War on Drugs and the 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Act and Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s “Is Prison Necessary?” 

Our programs included virtual teaching opportunities through organizations such as the Petey Greene Program, How to College, the Clemente Course and the Partakers Empowerment Program through the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative. In-person opportunities were also available, with students assisting Prof. David Sherman (ENG) in a poetry class at Suffolk County House of Corrections. 

For my own experiential opportunity, I was matched with Prof. Aaron Bray as a student facilitator for his Pre-Trial Litigation course taught in Nashua St. Jail, situated just outside of North Station in Boston. 

This course was part of a wider educational curriculum called the I-Can Academy conducted within the facility and supported by its internal Education Division. In addition to Prof. Bray’s class, there are a variety of courses provided to incarcerated students in English, personal finance and religion. In addition, a hi-set exam preparation class for high school equivalency credentials is offered. Many of these classes are similarly taught by other college students and faculty from the Greater Boston Area. 

Through I-Can Academy with Professor Bray, I learned a lot about the criminal justice system as well as how the Criminal Reform Act of 2018 has shaped the system in Massachusetts. By becoming familiar with these changes that include diversion programs, show-cause hearings, motion to suppress and reforms to Criminal Offender Record Information, I came to appreciate these changes (albeit incremental) in Massachusetts law and realize that there are in fact people out there who are working against the system to produce more favorable outcomes for justice-involved individuals and communities. 

The spirit of this change has been maintained by this practicum and the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative. The Brandeis students, faculty and justice-involved students who partake in these programs have all been a part of this movement of change. Below are some of their testimonies.

Yael Perlman ’23 on her experience facilitating Clemente’s Art History course: “I am so glad that Brandeis offers these different experiences for students to get a foot into the real world of activism which includes education as much as anything else. Education is a universal human right [and] providing these tools for incarcerated people is one of the best ways to help rehabilitate and reintegrate people into society. I hope to see Brandeis continue to increase these opportunities and bring the conversation surrounding criminal justice towards a greater focus on campus as a whole.”

Christie Louis ’24 on meeting the needs of Partakers Empowerment Program students as an education workshop facilitator. PEP is held weekly through Zoom and facilitates a variety of educational workshops for formerly incarcerated individuals:

“I know that we can’t change the negative experiences that [the students] have had. However, I would like to assist them in understanding that these experiences should not deter them from pursuing educational opportunities. I want them to know that they have the right to quality education and their learning disabilities do not define them. I hope that next week’s PEP talks can encourage them to reimagine how learning can differ from traditional standards yet still be impactful.”

Tammy Walker, former PEP student and teaching fellow, on her experience:

“What I got out of the PEP program is a sense of belonging. Like I belong to something. Because when you’re in prison you don’t feel like you belong to something and when you come home, you can’t pick up where you left off. [PEP] has opened my eyes to the fact that my life isn’t completely over. I came home to a support system. Some people [in my PEP cohort] didn’t know how to go on Mass Health or get an ID. With a Masters degree I was turned down for a job to make sandwiches. My education meant nothing because the criminal record supersedes what I’ve studied for 6 years. We need this program. It makes you think that you’re not alone and that you can give back. [Criminal Justice] is a field that I want to go into and PEP gives me an idea of what kind of job I can get. [The criminal justice system] wants you to get back out into the free world post-release and not have the tools to navigate it. Employers don’t want you because you have a criminal record. I did 12 years and 3 months. I’m done with my punishment, so now they should give me that second chance they promised me when I got in there. We have a long way to go but PEP and the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative have been amazing.”

Matt Shapiro ’24 on structural challenges while facilitating a poetry class at Suffolk County House of Corrections:

“It was hard to hear that students who chose to voluntarily participate in this class [...] weren’t able to because of how much else they would have to sacrifice. The fact that they had to decide between learning opportunities and calling people for legal advice felt wrong. This dynamic also makes it harder to progress with the class in general because so many students come in and out, and so each one is basically on their own individual track. Overall though, I was still able to appreciate and personally grow from the class time by getting to know the student[s] who did show up better and seeing how invested they were in attending.” 

Rebekah Loeffler ’24 on her first time at a correctional facility: “I had a very interesting time when I went into Suffolk House of Corrections for the first time this week. I was struck by the banality of the whole process; everyone I was talking to, from the guards and the educational professionals, to the incarcerated people, were, of course, used to the system. For something that is so sensationalized in American media, there was no big drama or obvious conflict like I was expecting. Why was I expecting something different? What does that say about me? Or the media I consume?”

One big concept that I have internalized throughout the semester is this:

If prisons are supposed to be rehabilitative in carrying out justice, why are there so many roadblocks to providing education behind bars? Why are there additional collateral consequences, like a criminal record (CORI), that are used to prevent folks from pursuing a better life for themselves? If a prison sentence is supposed to absolve the crime committed and restore justice, why is it that once the sentence is over, there are other punitive measures taken to further disadvantage folks in blocking educational, healthcare, employment and housing access? 

Collateral consequences and the existence of a criminal record are proof that the carceral system is majorly flawed in that it does not actually carry out justice — it is purely punitive. 

The rehabilitative initiatives in place are implemented by individual actors and advocates like us, rather than part of the system itself. Even then, these initiatives are discouraged from taking place. Consequently, when incarcerated individuals recidivate due to this lack of support, it is clear that the system itself is to blame. 

It is easy to get dissuaded as a legal studies student when witnessing all the ways that the system works against justice-involved individuals. Participating in this practicum has helped me see first-hand the potential for large-scale, tangible change, and my potential to be a part of it.