Brandeis Justice Initiative hopes to provide prison education

October 30, 2020

While the Brandeis Justice Initiative may be a mostly virtual operation without a physical office on campus, the initiative hopes to tangibly impact the local community through education and awareness programs about the criminal justice system. It launched in early September 2020 and is recruiting students to educate incarcerated people and provide education, tutoring and mentoring to those who face economic disempowerment, Daniella Gáti (GRAD), the graduate administrator and outreach coordinator, told The Brandeis Hoot in an interview. 

The initiative got its roots in the work of three core faculty members: Rosalind Kabhrel (LGLS), John Plotz (ENG) and David Sherman (ENG), said Gáti. Kabhrel has held courses with students from the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, a larger organization for students interested in working with incarcerated people started to form over the summer, which is when Gáti joined the initiative in June.

“One of the reasons I was so excited to get on board with this was because I feel that this is such an essential part of Brandeis’s mission,” they added. “To create a hub [at] Brandeis that allows all these kinds of questions and all this learning to take place about mass incarceration will be one of the perhaps most important goals for Brandeis, in my opinion, moving forward.”

Thanks to a PhD grant the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences won from the Mellon Foundation, the initiative has enough funds to pay graduate students that could be placed in prison classrooms and to hire Gáti. The initiative is looking for other sources of funding, however, as the three professors are not being paid for their work, Gáti added. They hope that Brandeis could support the initiative or programs like it.

“I really encourage the university to prioritize this,” Gáti said. “I think that thinking about allocating Brandeis’s investments in ways that support programming like the Brandeis Justice Initiative is going to be a priority.”

Over the summer, the coronavirus pandemic and the national protests over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer helped shape the initiative, Gáti explained. As much as is possible, educational programs will be online, they said, especially because the people the initiative work with tend to be at a higher risk for the coronavirus. The initiative isn’t just for the incarcerated either, it also works with those who are often unfairly affected by the criminal justice system. The initiative partners with the Clemente Course, a program that teaches college courses to those in economic distress. 

Gáti also added that, as a white person, they hope to fight against institutionalized racism within the criminal justice system while acknowledging that they might not always know the best way to move forward.

“The three professors and I myself are at least phenotypically white, and I would just like to note that,” Gáti said. “I can’t claim that we have followed the absolute best way to move forward but I want to acknowledge both my doubts and hesitations but also my responsibility as a white person to work for racial justice and to work for restorative justice and against the racist system that underlies the entire incarceration complex.”

Other Justice Initiative programs include teaching courses within prisons, which will likely start in the spring when prisons re-open to educational programs in Massachusetts, Gáti told The Hoot. Massachusetts prisons don’t have internet access, Gáti explained, making it impossible to continue education programs virtually during the pandemic. The Department of Corrections media office confirmed that there is no internet in Massachusetts prisons.

The initiative also provides a list of resources for educating oneself on the criminal justice system on its website and hosts events including a reading group, film screening and meeting for those interested in getting involved. Students interested in getting involved should email the initiative at brandeisjusticeinitiative@gmail.com—which lands in Gáti and their undergraduate intern’s inbox. 

Undergraduate students are more than welcome to work with the initiative, said Gáti, and can serve in a variety of roles, including helping with the administration of programs or doing practical work like tutoring. They mentioned the Petey Greene Program, which trains students to tutor incarcerated students. 

Gáti said they have received a number of emails from interested students and members of the Brandeis community, and more than 100 people expressed interest in working with the Justice Initiative through the initiative’s fall interest form. 

“The expression of interest from the Brandeis community has been absolutely amazing and this is a great sign for us,” they said. “I feel very honored to see that there is that kind of resonance in the community.”

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