Merrimack Jail Education Project Receives Certificate of General Studies

The Jail Education Project (JEP) at Merrimack College has recently established a Certificate in General Studies. The certification means it is now a credential-bearing program.
Associate Professor Brittnie Aiello (and Assistant Professor Emma Duffy-Comparone
Associate Professor Brittnie Aiello (left) and Assistant Professor Emma Duffy-Comparone (right)

Co-directed by Associate Professor Brittnie Aiello and Assistant Professor Emma Duffy-Comparone, the Jail Education Project (JEP) makes higher education accessible to those incarcerated in local county jails.

Since 2017, Merrimack has been offering courses at Essex County Correctional Facility. In 2019, the program expanded to include the Middlesex House of Correction. This year, the program expanded again to include courses for women held at the Women’s Pre-Release in Billerica, MA. So far, faculty have taught courses in Business, Communication and Media, Criminology and Criminal Justice, English, Human Development, Philosophy, Religious Studies.

“The program centers the idea that education is a basic human right,” said Duffy-Comparone, who also serves as the director of the Writers House at Merrimack. “Incarcerated individuals have historically experienced significant barriers to continuing or pursuing their education in the U.S. The JEP is a way for higher education institutions to course correct, so to speak, and increase access to education in this population.”

The Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 effectively ended higher education programs in U.S. penal facilities by declaring incarcerated people ineligible for federal funding for education. Since then, colleges and universities have attempted to fill the void by offering access to private higher education programs. “Expanding access to higher education for incarcerated people is crucial for positive reentry after their sentence is served,” said Aiello. “Educational programming is not only beneficial to career development and building life skills, but it is also highly correlated with reduced recidivism.”

“We aim to address the challenges of short-term incarceration,” Aiello said. “And our model not only addresses these challenges, but also seizes on the unique opportunities jails present. Unlike state prisons, for example, county jails are local, and many people are released nearby. These demographics make us well-positioned to offer reentry support and to mobilize local networks in this effort.”

The JEP has been operational at Merrimack for nearly five years. Their recent certification process will advance the program that much further and allow program participants the opportunity to earn tangible credentials by the time they are released.

Randall Horton
Randall Horton reads to students at the Essex County Correctional Facility.

The JEP has also started collaborating with internal partners across campus, including the Writers House. In fall 2021 poet Randall Horton, who came to Merrimack as a part of the Visiting Writers Series, also visited students at the Essex County Correctional Facility. Horton, who is formerly incarcerated, is a professor of English at New Haven University and is the author of {#289-128}, which won a 2021 American Book Award, and the forthcoming memoir, Dead Weight, among other books.

“The Visiting Writers Series at Merrimack provides students with the opportunity to engage with working writers, learn from fellow artists and engage in meaningful conversations surrounding art, life and the craft of writing,” Duffy-Comparone said. “Incarcerated students deserve to have those meaningful connections in the classroom as well.”

Learn More about the Jail Education Project

Learn More About Criminology and Criminal Justice

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