Dominique Kirk always valued education, but she dropped out of college to prioritize caring for her kids. Years later, when she arrived at Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center, a minimum-security facility, she had a goal in mind when she talked to Education Director Abbie Embry-Turner.

“I had a lot of issues in here,” she said in a Zoom call from the facility. “When I met Abbie, I told her that I actually wanted to get my life together, and that schooling was one thing that I wanted to get back to.”

Kirk restarted her college journey last year thanks to a remote learning program offered at SMWRC, a pilot from The Education Justice Institute at MIT. Now, she has plans to finish her associate’s degree in business through the University of Maine at Augusta.

Both educators and correctional facility administrators say MIT’s virtual program has been a success, allowing them to reach across geographic barriers, offer classes that teach in-demand skills and reach underserved populations in New England. They hope it can be a model for prison education moving forward, well past the pandemic.

WATCH: Students Mackenzie Kelley and Victoria Scott talk about their experience with MIT's remote learning program

New opportunities

When in-person prison education programs shut down in 2020, professors like MIT’s Lee Perlman, who has taught college courses inside Boston-area prisons since the 1980s, started to experiment with alternative ways to reach incarcerated men and women.

In his course “Nonviolence As A Way of Life,” he used to bring MIT students into prisons to learn side by side with incarcerated students, wrestling with ethical questions of justice, redemption and forgiveness.

“The in-person experience is so powerful that I wondered whether this could be replicated online,” Perlman said.

The pandemic required educators and facility staff to establish a new virtual platform in places where internet use is restricted. Before MIT’s platform was introduced in 2020, women at Maine facilities had to take classes on a delay, relying on spotty internet and computers whenever they could manage to get supervised access.

This new platform allowed for real-time interaction and discussion, like a true classroom. It also offered an opportunity to expand beyond Boston and bring together students from different facilities. The Educational Justice Institute reached out to partners in New England, including the women’s facility in Maine and men’s facilities in the northeast — making the classes co-ed for the first time, a rare occurrence in prison education. More than 50 incarcerated students took courses throught the remote program, with students from MIT, Harvard University and Wellesley College joining them.

Mackenzie Kelley, a student at the Maine correctional facility who is in her last semester of a bachelor’s degree program in business management, said the virtual course was just as intimate — sometimes even more so — as it would have been in person.

“I really enjoy the humanity in the course because over a period of time you realize — it’s not about ‘inside’ students or ‘outside’ students, really,” she said over Zoom. “It’s just, we’re all human and we all make mistakes.”

That humanity was evident during the unit on restorative justice in Perlman’s class. In one of Kelley’s classes in which she served as a teaching assistant, she described a profound moment: An MIT student, whose mother was a victim of violent crime, spoke directly with a student in another Maine facility who was in prison for murder. When Perlman asked the man to imagine that the MIT student and her family were his victims, he broke down.

“So he’s crying, she’s crying, I’m crying because I see this interaction,” Kelley said. “I think we all kind of learned from each other.”

A women in a blue plaid shirt and long blonde hair sits at a desk with a laptop and open textbook.
Danielle Ward, who took college courses through MIT's remote learning program, studies at the Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center.
Abbie Embry-Turner

Danielle Ward, who also took the nonviolence course at SMWRC and is getting an associate’s degree in mental health and human services, found the same compassion and camaraderie in her course. One of the MIT students told the class that she had a friend who had been killed by a drunk driver. Ward, who is serving a sentence for vehicular manslaughter, wasn’t sure if she should share her background in class.

“I was really nervous about speaking with her,” she said via Zoom. “I just didn’t know how she would feel about that, or if she would think of me differently.”

Ward did talk about her background, and the student responded with empathy. Both Kelley and Ward were surprised at how much the students in each class — MIT undergraduates, incarcerated women and incarcerated men — could relate to each other.

“We all have different backgrounds, and so it was a very non-judgmental class,” Ward said.

Creating the conditions for those courses required the difficult work of adapting to different facilities’ limitations.

“It was remarkable because we were able to create a live, synchronous, remote learning community — much more than a traditional Zoom lecture in a classroom,” said Carole Cafferty, co-director of The Educational Justice Institute.

"I really enjoy the humanity in the course because over a period of time you realize — it's not about 'inside' students or 'outside' students, really. It's just, we're all human and we all make mistakes."
-Mackenzie Kelley, student at the Maine correctional facility

Prison education courses usually cover general education topics or liberal arts, and women’s prisons are often underserved by educational programs because they have smaller populations. The virtual option allowed MIT to go against both of those norms. They gathered enough students from different facilities all together to offer Brave Behind Bars, a computer science class that brought together 25 women from four different facilities in New England over the summer. They all got credit through Washington County Community College.

Marisa Gaetz, a PhD student in math at MIT, taught the course. She had previously served as a teaching assistant for Perlman’s nonviolence course, an experience she called “really unique and special.”

Gaetz and several other MIT students adapted the web design course specifically for the incarcerated women, structuring it with practicality in mind. The students learned HTML, CSS and Javascript through hands-on projects.

"[The students] seemed much more inspired to learn when it's something that's dear to your heart, rather than something that’s just kind of abstract and distant," she said.

There were challenges. Each facility had its own technical infrastructure and security protocols: some students had access to email, some didn’t; some students could individually sign on to Zoom, some couldn’t.

Once they worked out the logistics, Gaetz said that the quality of the virtual learning proved to be the “same if not better” for teaching web design. With breakout rooms, screen control, chats and polls, the MIT instructors got creative to engage with students and personalize their instruction.

For their final project, the students each created a website dedicated to something they cared about. One site brought together resources for women in prison, including a Sesame Street episode about incarceration; another raised awareness about domestic violence. One woman created a site for her daughter’s small business.

Cafferty said that web design can give students a leg up when they seek employment.

"We live in a digital world and applicants with coding skills are in high demand," she said. "Coding skills provide a solid pathway for returning citizens to achieve a sustainable income and break the cycle of incarceration."

Education as rehabilitation

Studies have shown that education can be key for reducing recidivism. Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty says the MIT program fits with the state’s philosophy of rehabilitation. He praised SMWRC administrators for making educational programs available during the pandemic despite technical challenges, something he encourages more correctional facilities to consider.

“They recognize that we should be in the business of healing and redemption, wherever you land on the political spectrum,” he said. “If we’re spending $46,000 a year to house someone, we need to identify why they’re there and do everything we can do to help them not come back.”

At a recent roundtable event about virtual prison education sponsored by The Educational Justice Institute, Sam Willliams, executive director of Concord Prison Outreach in Massachusetts, said the virtual program shows where prison education should be headed.

“This is cutting edge to me, being a formerly incarcerated person,” he said. “Now, being out doing prison education myself for the last 25 years, and knowing that it takes this type of effort, leadership, commitment, the creativity from the college students. ... This is the way we need to go.”

Liberty said that programs like MIT’s can “break the cycle of incarceration” for women, many of whom leave behind children when they get caught up in the criminal justice system.

Ward hopes that her pursuit of education can inspire her own children.

“I just try to show them that people can change,” she said. “Mom’s back in school and pursuing my education — I just want to make them proud of me,” she said.