Highlighted within the most recent issue of Brandeis Magazine is one of Brandeis University’s many programs created to educate and support the community, the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative (BEJI). BEJI was founded in 2019 by Legal Studies and English faculty members Rosalind Kabrhel (LGLS), John Plotz (ENG) and David Sherman (ENG) with a focus on “critical inquiry into the carceral system” and “community engaged-learning,” according to their website. The Initiative is largely inspired by movements for restorative justice and, as emphasized on their site, uses its unique position as the work of a university to “bear responsibility for addressing persistent, systemic inequities in our society, including the persistent racism of educational and criminal justice institutions.” Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative is focused on providing education for those impacted by incarceration as youth or adults, which has been proven to have many positive effects on students. According to studies conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice, prison education programs improve facility safety and positively impact reentry for students. A study by the US Sentencing Commission also showed how higher education often reduces the rates of recidivism among offenders. The 2016 study stated that “offenders with less than a high school diploma had the highest recidivism rates (60.4 percent), followed by high school graduates (50.7 percent) and those with some college (39.3 percent). College graduates had the lowest rates (19.1 percent).” BEJI and other education programs and initiatives focused on incarcerated individuals attempt to assist incarcerated people through these proven benefits.
Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative has five different partners and programs, such as their partner the Emerson Prison Initiative (EPI). EPI gives incarcerated individuals the chance to earn a bachelor’s degree from Emerson College while still held at the Middlesex Correctional Institution at Concord. BEJI assists in this initiative through providing tutors, teaching fellows and instructors year-round who work with students and mentor them through the program. BEJI is also partnered with the Petey Greene Program which “supports the academic goals of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people through high-quality volunteer tutoring programs, while educating volunteers on the injustice manifest in our carceral system,” according to their mission statement. BEJI works as the connection between interested students and the program, training and placing students in different facilities to serve as tutors.
Another one of their programs, the Partakers Empowerment Program (PEP), was featured in the article in Brandeis Magazine. BEJI’s website defines the program as a 13-week virtual workshop for those who are soon to be released from incarceration. Alongside community partner Partakers, which facilitates mentorship and reentry programs in Massachusetts, PEP focuses on the many worries surrounding reentry. PEP’s graduate and undergraduate student workers facilitate workshops on topics such as civic engagement, professionalism, personal finance, technology and education.
One previous student of the Partakers Empowerment Program, Tammy Walker, was interviewed for Brandeis Magazine. The article discusses Walker’s struggle with finding employment post-incarceration including being turned away from a job at a sandwich counter since she wouldn’t pass a background check despite the fact that she has a master’s degree in criminal justice administration and worked as a police officer for over a decade. Walker stated that, “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.” Brandeis student Maheeb Rabbani ’23, who is involved in PEP, told Brandeis Magazine about his experience working with the program, “you are actually making an impact in the real world.” Rabbani stated, “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.”
Rabbani’s experience working with PEP is consistent with the goals of the program and the needs of the incarcerated population. “There is a growing Brandeis community of people who want to learn about the carceral system by getting involved in this extramural teaching opportunity,” co-founder John Plotz (ENG) told Brandeis Magazine. “We are creating spaces where Brandeis people and people caught up in the system can exist together as peers.”
Although many of BEJI’s programs connect students with off-campus opportunities to assist incarcerated individuals, previously incarcerated individuals or those high-risk communities, BEJI also has on-campus learning opportunities for students. BEJI hosts a reading group that discusses carceral issues through reading memoirs, legal analysis, political theory and more. Students also have the opportunity to get involved in the Media Working Group for BEJI which sends out the BEJI newsletter, runs their social media accounts and conducts outreach. Additionally there is a Legal Studies course taught by Rosalind Kabrhel (LGLS) entitled Legal Studies Practicum: Experiences with Justice (LGLS145A). The course gives students an understanding of the prison industrial complex, consequences of incarceration and how education can assist in reforming the criminal justice system. Students in the course are placed at various institutions to get hands-on experience with restorative justice work.
Brandeis students are encouraged to reach out to any of the co-founders if interested in becoming involved with the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative. Students from all disciplines are welcome to participate.