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Coursework Earns Inmates Credits — and Credit

January 30, 2018
Eleven inmates at the Essex County Sheriff’s Department Middleton (Massachusetts) Jail earned four credits from Merrimack College as part of an innovative program in which they completed the new course “Institutions and Inequality” at the end of the fall semester.

The course focused on social institutions such as education, criminal justice and healthcare systems, as well as racism, classism and sexism, taught by Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice Brittnie Aiello.

Students don’t typically receive diplomas after each course, but the Sheriff’s Department hosted a graduation ceremony that was a celebration of hope for the future as much as it was for completion of the class.

Anthony Sideri, the owner of Restoration Barber Shop in North Andover, and a former inmate at the jail, was the keynote speaker. He served time at the prison for bank robbery but took advantage of the barber training at the jail and used that to land a job clipping hair after his release, which eventually led to opening his own shop Nov. 1, 2017.

“Now I find out you are taking Merrimack College courses,” Sideri said. “Such opportunities.”

The program aligns with the Sheriff’s Department’s goal of helping inmates make use of educational and social resources that will help them find work when they are released and thereby reduce recidivism.

“We want to encourage them to keep going when they are released,” said Sheriff Kevin F. Coppinger.

“Offering college courses is an effort to shift the focus and turn their lives around by starting them on the path of higher education,” Aiello said after the ceremony. “We have three students right now applying for community college and they will be able to take their Merrimack credits with them.”

There are similar programs at prisons around the country, but those are for convicted felons serving longer sentences. Middleton Jail houses inmates who are waiting for trial or who have been given short sentences, so Aiello designed her class to meet their time constraints.

She began with a non-credit course in the fall of 2016 that was similar to Institutions and Inequality but less academically rigorous. She followed that with a course titled Drugs and Society in the spring of 2017, and then continued with the inaugural version of Institutions and Inequality last fall. “I think the class offers an important worldview and a way for guys to understand their lives in a broader context of society,” Aiello said.

During the semester, Aiello went to the jail twice a week to teach and give reading and writing assignments. Then at least one of her three teaching assistants visited each evening Monday through Thursday and Sunday afternoons, to help students organize and outline their writing assignments. The teaching assistants worked so well with the students that Aiello plans to have them join her in classs for the spring semester course Race, Class, Crime.

Associate professor and Criminology Department Chairwoman Karen Hayden was impressed by the success of students she met at the graduation ceremony and said Aiello’s community outreach fits with the Augustinian mission of building a community of scholars. “Nurturing a community of scholars in a jail, I think, is great,” Hayden said.

Aiello is working with Assistant Professor of English Emma Duffy-Comparone in developing plans for a general education introduction to creative writing course for this summer.

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  • Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice Brittnie Aiello presents a diploma to an inmate during a ceremony ...
    Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice Brittnie Aiello presents a diploma to an inmate during a ceremony at the Middleton Jail in Essex County, Massachusetts.

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