Behind Bars. And Graduating from BU

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Steven Correia won’t join his classmates on Nickerson Field at BU’s Commencement on Sunday to graduate with a bachelor of liberal arts degree in interdisciplinary studies.

Instead, Correia (MET’19) will wake up in his prison cell at MCI Norfolk, nearly an hour’s drive southwest of Nickerson Field, and go about his day behind bars, just as he has for most of the last 37 years.

But inside this medium-security state correctional facility, Correia declares his pride in the degree he’s earned through BU’s Prison Education Program over the last five years, and in his GPA, which is north of 3.5.

“This degree to me is going to be my display to my mother that I appreciate her and want her to be proud of her firstborn son,” says the 64-year-old, wiping away tears in a spartan prison conference room. “And I want my children to be proud finally of something I accomplished that is good. And I’ve stuck with it also to influence my grandchildren to get a college education, so they can have a career and get out of the grasp of poverty and move their lives forward.”

Neatly groomed, with a close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard and wearing clean blue work clothes, Correia nonetheless apologizes for his appearance—inmates on his cell block were rousted at 7:30 am so guards could search their cells, he says, and he was allowed back in only briefly to change before the interview. Unfailingly polite and often pensive in discussing his situation, he also bristles when describing the hardships and indignities of prison life.

He is one of 10 inmates who will don a cap and gown to receive their Boston University diploma in June in a small ceremony at the prison visiting room. He’s not sure if any of his family will come. Only one of his three children is in regular contact, and his mother is beginning to suffer from dementia. He’s hoping a cousin will bring her.

Correia is one of 372 inmates—the men from Norfolk, the women from MCI Framingham—to earn a BU diploma since the program started in 1972. Other area universities are getting involved in similar ways, including MIT’s Educational Justice Institute, which in 2017 founded the Massachusetts Prison Education Consortium.

Support for prison education waxes and wanes with the political climate, and some will always believe that convicts don’t deserve to be able to get an education while they serve their sentences. But data support the idea that education reduces recidivism—and there’s even a move afoot in Washington to return Pell Grant access to inmates.

The most motivated students

“It’s really transformative to see how these men and women can articulate complex ideas and demonstrate critical thinking,” says Mary Ellen Mastrorilli, a Metropolitan College associate professor of the practice, criminal justice, who oversees the Prison Education Program. “It’s kind of mind-blowing. They are some of the most motivated students a professor will ever have.”

Portrait of Mary Ellen Mastrorilli, director of the Boston University Prison Education Program

Inmates are “some of the most motivated students a professor will ever have,” says Mary Ellen Mastrorilli, a Metropolitan College associate professor of the practice, criminal justice, who oversees the Prison Education Program. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

In many cases, the source of that motivation is family outside the walls, often a child or a parent.

“I’m trying hard as I can to get my firstborn grandbaby to go to college. She wants to be a doctor,” Correia says. “I need to show her, if your granddaddy can do this at age 64, in the penitentiary, after I’ve been here 37 years, dealing with all this negativity, all this aggravation and disrespect and humiliation—if I can do it through all this, you can do it.”

The experience of getting a college education while behind bars is nothing like that of typical on-campus students. It’s a throwback to an era before cell phones, laptops, and the internet. Each class meets once a week for three hours, and inmates can take up to three classes a week; there’s a classroom dedicated just to the BU program. But computer technology is largely out of reach, with the prison library the main resource for research. Forget about labs. MET pays for textbooks, but otherwise it’s paper and pen and classroom discussion.

“I tell my faculty it’s like teaching in the 1970s,” says Mastrorilli, who is also MET’s applied social sciences department chair ad interim.

But those constraints have an upside, too, says one of Correia’s teachers, Abraham Waya, a MET adjunct faculty member who has been teaching in prison since 2004.

“No phones, no laptops, nothing electronic, so the students have their textbook and their notes and they have you, that’s it,” Waya says with a laugh. “No distractions at all, which is good, very good. They’re not running to their laptop to find out if what you just said is wrong. They pay attention, they contribute, the discussions are lively. They speak with respect to each other.”

The student inmates work hard in spite of—or perhaps because of—those challenges, he says, “and in many cases I get reports that I consider better than I get in an on-campus class. They are older, so they appreciate what has been given to them by education, and some people on campus take it for granted.”

Waya, who is also a pastor at a United Methodist Church in Brockton, doesn’t try to learn why his students are in prison, which puts them on a simpler student-teacher footing, he says. This semester, he taught Correia and two dozen other inmates in an Introduction to the Philosophy of Religions class, which pushes some inmates’ buttons because it raises fundamental questions about their faith. But Correia “has something to contribute every time, stating his opinions, and he doesn’t become defensive,” Waya says. “He is engaging, he is intelligent, he is calm.”

An impoverished childhood

Correia grew up in a poor family in New Bedford, with a single mother and six siblings. He liked school, but the streets lured him away by ninth grade, and he first entered a correctional facility as a teenager. He got his GED 40 years ago, he says, while serving time for breaking and entering and car theft. In 1985, he walked away from a work release program. When he was captured a couple of months later, he was charged, and convicted, in a string of crimes, including aggravated rape and armed robbery.

screenshot from Steven's website

Several years ago, Correia created a website to share his writing with people outside the walls.

He bounced around the Massachusetts prison system, trying to get transferred to Norfolk for years because of the BU program and finally landing here in 2011. With several overlapping sentences ranging up to life, Correia says, he will not be eligible for parole until 2026. But parole is one reason prison education is a good idea, says Mastrorilli. Citing a 2016 US Sentencing Commission report, she says that some 60 percent of all released inmates are repeat offenders and find themselves back behind bars. But the recidivism for prison education graduates? Much less—only 19 percent.

“It’s a good investment in people,” she says. “Some 96 percent of these prisoners get out of prison one day. They’re coming back to your community and mine, so it’s a good investment. Education reduces possible reoffending, they get better jobs, they earn higher wages.”

A former prison administrator, Mastrorilli worked in corrections in the state for 24 years in a variety of posts, retiring from the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department to fulfill a long-held desire to teach. Running the Prison Education Program, she says, she’s come full circle. “I’m so happy to be back in prisons again,” she says. “I’m very comfortable there, and I really love supporting our students, using both my corrections background and my academic background.”

Even inside the walls, Correia says, focusing on education has its benefits.

“In prison, people get on your nerves, they challenge you, people are disrespectful to you, there’s a bunch of things go on,” he says. “I don’t want to lose this degree, and that has kept me from punching people in the face sometimes….It’s been a challenge to let some things go, but I have because I’m focused on BU.”

Beginning next year, the Prison Education Program is changing to an eight-course certificate program in interdisciplinary studies, although students currently enrolled can still complete their degree. Why the change? The interdisciplinary approach that BU has begun with the BU HUB is not possible for inmate students to complete because of requirements beyond the classroom.

“The BU HUB requirements would be virtually impossible to implement behind the walls of a medium-security facility,” Mastrorilli says. “The cross-college challenge, study abroad—they just can’t comply. BU is committed to post-secondary education for incarcerated individuals and despite the obstacles and challenges the BU Hub presents, Metropolitan College devised a way to keep the program going in the form of a 32-credit interdisciplinary certificate.”

For Correia, the change from getting a degree to a certificate diminishes the impact of the program.

“It’s a shame,” he says. “There are people coming behind me going to need this education to get their lives straight and keep their lives straight. With any education, opportunities are greater, I appreciate that—however, with a degree, the opportunities for a career are much better.”

Waya says inmates often ask him why he cares about educating prisoners when so many people just want to lock them up and throw away the key.

“My answer is, I don’t know why you’re here, so that has no impact on how I see you,” he says. “I also know there is no ticket to moving forward in life better than a good, solid education. It is something you need, and it is something I can offer. But you have to promise me that you are going to work hard and do everything possible not to come back here after you get out.”