Jail Education Project Expands with Support of the Rapoport Foundation

The Merrimack College Jail Education Project (JEP) has just wrapped up a series of courses supported by a grant from The Rapoport Foundation.

  • Since 2017, JEP has been offering incarcerated students access to college courses.

The grant, which focused on improving reentry outcomes for incarcerated people, supported five courses at the Middlesex House of Corrections. It marks the first time in the history of JEP that the program had so many courses running in one time period. The Rapoport Foundation also supported a program evaluation, administrative support, collaboration with Middlesex Community College, and re-entry coaching. “I never could have imagined we would be in the place we are now. It’s really exciting that we’ve been able to offer so many more courses and have more faculty involved,” said Brittnie Aiello, professor and chair of the department of criminology, and JEP co-director.

The Merrimack College Jail Education Project has been providing college courses to incarcerated students since 2017. “Back in the beginning, it was just me, teaching one course per semester with the support of the Provost’s Office,” said Aiello. In 2019, Emma Duffy-Comparone, associate professor of English and director of the Writers House, came on board as co-director and started teaching creative writing to incarcerated students. Since then, Merrimack faculty have taught courses in business, communications, math, philosophy, sociology, religious studies, and human development, with more subjects planned for spring 2023.

Dr. Melissa “Mish” Zimdars, associate professor of communications, taught Introduction to Media over the summer. “Teaching in the jail was a profound experience. My students were eager to learn, to discuss course materials, and think critically about the mediated world that impacts all of our everyday lives,” Zimdars said. She is looking forward to teaching in the program again.

“The Rapoport Foundation grant has really helped us pave the way for expansion because with financial support we could reach more students and those students could earn more credits. It helped us to prove to the Sheriff’s Department that our courses are really valuable,” Aiello explained. Professors Aiello and Duffy-Comparone secured a contract with Middlesex Sheriff’s Department to fund at least four courses per year at the main facility. They have also added four courses at the Women’s Pre-release Center since fall 2021. “Working with the women has been so wonderful. We have a great time and they are so intellectually curious and open to the creative process,” said Duffy-Comparone.

Essex County Sheriff’s Department has recently entered into a similar contract with Merrimack. “We are really happy about that because that’s where we started, and the students at Essex County are really motivated,” said Duffy-Comparone, who taught a course in August at Essex County Pre-release and Re-entry Center. “Since Merrimack is in Essex County, it’s important that we are supporting re-entry in our own community,” she said. Between the two counties, JEP is now able to offer courses in four distinct facilities.

As the Jail Education Project has expanded, so too have opportunities for Merrimack students to get involved. Dr. Aiello explained, “Our program has always had students involved as Teacher’s Assistants, running writing sessions, exam reviews, or otherwise keeping things moving. They are so important to our success.” Amanda McVey, a student in the M.S. in Criminology and Criminal Justice program is the Jail Education Project graduate fellow for 2021-2022, but she started working with JEP when she was a senior, serving as a TA for Dr. Aiello’s Drugs and Society course at Middlesex House of Corrections in spring 2022. “We are so thrilled to have Amanda on board full-time this year. She has experience already, which is nice, but as a graduate fellow she can do even more for the program,” Aiello explained. Amanda is helping with data management, grant writing, and of course, working directly with students as a TA. She is also going to run an extracurricular book club at Middlesex County House of Corrections, starting in a few weeks. Amanda said she likes working with the program because as a CCJ major, “I recognize that these students will be released and become a part of the community. I want them to be able to smoothly reintegrate into society and hopefully further their education or pursue a career.”

Jordan Wrzesien, ’22, served as a TA for the jail program four times, has worked in all four facilities, and even came back after graduation to work in Duffy-Comparone’s class at the Essex County Pre-release and Re-entry center this past summer. Wrzesien graduated from Merrimack with a B.A. in English, and as a result of her work with JEP, Wrzesien has decided to pursue a Master’s in Social Work degree.

She said: “The Jail Education Project is life-changing for everyone involved! The men and women who have taken these courses have said time and again that they are being offered a chance to start over, or to begin a path they never felt was available for them. I am so grateful to be a part of such a meaningful program that creates such a positive impact on people’s lives. This program inspires real change into the lives of everyone involved and it’s all thanks to the compassion of its directors.”

The evaluation of the Rapoport Foundation project showed that students improved their academic skills, gained confidence, and really enjoyed their instructors and coursework. Research has repeatedly shown that providing educational opportunities for incarcerated people has a positive impact, both during and after release. Aiello explained, “It makes sense. If people are educated they have stronger skills, higher self-esteem, and an overall better chance of succeeding when they return to the community.” Duffy-Comparone noted that while many colleges and universities are running programs in prisons and to a lesser degree, jails, “We feel really lucky to be running our program at a place like Merrimack, where serving the community is integral to the mission of the institution. We’ve always had the support of the administration and college community.”

Faculty and students who are interested in being involved in the Jail Education Program should reach out to Emma Duffy-Comparone (duffycompare@merrimack.edu) or Brittnie Aiello (aiellob@merrimack.edu) for more information.