Making Change From the Inside Out

A new program run by Brandeis professors and students helps people who have been incarcerated rejoin society.

A woman in gray sweater standing outside under bare trees looks off into the distance.
Mike Lovett
OVERCOMING BARRIERS: Tammy Walker, released from prison in 2019, began as a student in the Partakers Empowerment Program, then became a teaching assistant.

Tammy Walker holds a master’s degree in criminal justice administration and worked as a police officer for 12 years. But she couldn’t get a job behind a sandwich counter.

Within minutes of hiring her and giving her a uniform, Walker’s would-be employer discovered she had served more than a dozen years in two Massachusetts prisons. She wouldn’t pass a background check, she was told, and was let go.

“I’m doing the best I can to fit back into society, and to be turned down for that job was a kick in the back,” says Walker, 59, who was released from prison in March 2019. “What am I going to do with my life when I can’t even get a job making sandwiches?”

Stories like Walker’s are common among formerly incarcerated people. Barriers to reentering society are numerous, ranging from a lack of computer and financial literacy to understanding how to access health care. Yet a 2016 Rand Corporation study found that up to 43% of inmates are less likely to re-offend and return to prison when they have access to education.

The First Step Act, signed by the U.S. Congress in 2018, shortened mandatory sentencing for some nonviolent offenders and allowed more low-risk prisoners to return to their communities. But it meant people were coming out of prison without the chance to spend time in a reentry program.

A year ago, in collaboration with Partakers, a Massachusetts nonprofit that mentors incarcerated people, Brandeis launched the Partakers Empowerment Program, to help recently released individuals learn the practical skills they need to rejoin society.

PEP is one of several programs within the university’s new Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative, created by English department faculty members John Plotz and David Sherman, and legal studies program director Rosalind Kabrhel. BEJI helps students and faculty get involved in expanding educational access to people within the criminal justice system.

“When a person comes out of prison, they are concerned about all kinds of things — how do I get a job? Put food on the table? Get a car?” says Kabrhel. “We focus on developing life skills that help people meet these critical needs, along with inspiring their interest in aspects of traditional education, like writing and civic engagement.”

‘Unlike anything you can learn in the classroom’

Through BEJI, Brandeis students get an eye-opening education of their own. “You are actually making an impact in the real world,” says Maheeb Rabbani ’23, an international and global studies, and politics double major who got involved with PEP after taking a class taught by Kabrhel.

“I’ve learned about the criminal justice system in classrooms,” Rabbani continues. “But the knowledge I’ve gained from actually talking to people who have been in the carceral system is unlike anything you can learn in the classroom.”

Kabrhel, an attorney who teaches classes on juvenile justice and mass incarceration, became interested in connecting Brandeis students with the incarcerated population after working in the civil rights division of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office. At the same time, Plotz and Sherman were interested in teaching humanities courses in nontraditional settings. After learning about Kabrhel’s work, they decided to join forces.

“There is a growing Brandeis community of people who want to learn about the carceral system by getting involved in this extramural teaching opportunity,” Plotz says. “We are creating spaces where Brandeis people and people caught up in the system can exist together as peers.”

The Brandeis initiative goes beyond other higher-ed-in-prison programs by connecting students with men and women in pre-release programs, in probation and in high-risk communities other than prison.

“Students like me run these programs,” says Jessi Brewer, a second-year PhD student in English. “We’re co-facilitating and collaborating. The key to reform is university and community connections, educating people about how our justice system works and making change from the inside out.”

A seated woman in a brown sweater and standing man in a light-gray sweater in a light-filled interior space.
Mike Lovett
PhD student Jessi Brewer and Maheeb Rabbani ’23

Back on campus, Sherman and Plotz organize a reading group for Brandeis community members to discuss topics related to BEJI’s work, such as articles on the criminal justice system or poetry written by incarcerated individuals. Kabrhel teaches a student research practicum, Experiences With Justice. Practicum projects range from a podcasting initiative involving individuals within the juvenile justice system to an examination of Massachusetts criminal justice policy reforms.

“I just see incarceration in a different way because of BEJI,” says Logan Shanks ’24, an African and African American studies major. “This program has enhanced my lived experience, so when I read the theory, I think about how this is something someone lived through.”

Risky, satisfying moments

On a recent Wednesday evening, eight formerly convicted individuals logged onto a PEP Zoom session with Carly Buckholz, assistant director of admissions at Brandeis, who got involved with BEJI after moving to Massachusetts two years ago; English PhD student Rachel Dale, who administers the program; and several undergraduate facilitators.

One PEP student recapped the previous lesson, mentioning that she learned about the importance of guided meditation, conflict resolution and support networks. Then Julia Birnbaum ’22 led the group in tai chi. The group participated in an ice-breaker session, talking about their favorite outdoor activities before tackling the logistics of health insurance, a topic the PEP students described as frustrating and confusing.

John Yang, who spent seven years in prison and is now a BEJI teaching assistant, says PEP gave him access to day-to-day resources. “We’re not 18-, 19-year-old kids going to college to learn about life,” Yang explains. “We’re middle-aged people coming home, trying to regain our humanity and, at the same time, rebuild our lives.”

Vulnerability is the paradox of teaching humanities in prison, says Sherman. To stay safe in prison, individuals are often very guarded. Classes like Sherman’s are a space for people to open up and talk about what matters to them. “Sonny’s Blues” — a short story by James Baldwin, set in Harlem in the 1950s, about a Black algebra teacher who’s dealing with his brother Sonny’s drug addiction, arrest and recovery — prompts that kind of honest exchange. Discussing “Sonny’s Blues” with prison inmates was “the best conversation I’ve had about that story after years of teaching it,” says Sherman.

“As an English professor,” he says, “there’s something powerful that happens when you enter into a fictional space and have to reflect on your life in a different way. What I’m trying to figure out is how to make these risky moments possible and satisfying.”

During the pandemic, Tammy Walker spent 13 weeks on Zoom — a technology she had never heard of before PEP — along with 10 other formerly incarcerated individuals, in a class that covered new technologies, civic engagement, health and wellness, professionalism on the job and financial literacy. Brandeis graduate and undergraduate students led the class. The following semester, Walker served as a PEP teaching assistant for another group of formerly incarcerated individuals.

“I learned how to engage with people and how to write a proper email,” says Walker, who received a computer as part of the program. “I learned that vulnerability isn’t such a bad thing — it’s actually a strength, not a weakness. You leave us in prison, where there’s really no rehabilitation, so you come out and you’re fumbling. It’s a different world than it was.”

BEJI’s power, says Walker, is helping students overcome their hurdles, including their aversion to being vulnerable. She struggled over whether she should share with her class that she was fired from the sandwich-making job. In the end, she realized it would be a valuable story for everyone to hear.

“I lost everything,” she says. “But I’m trying to get on the right track again, to have my second chapter in life.”

Sydney Schwartz Gross is a writer living in the Boston area.