Faculty, staff and students continue to do great work to assist justice impacted individuals through TU’s Fair Chance Higher Education Initiative (FCHE). This collaborative effort across campus works to create pathways and remove obstacles for this population in order to assist them in their pursuit of higher education. A large component of this work is raising awareness and providing opportunities for individuals, both on and off campus, to learn about issues around reentry.
A starting point for many faculty in this area is creating specialized courses that students enroll in through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. This national program in higher education takes TU students inside a prison to study with incarcerated men and women. While these courses started at Towson University in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice with faculty in the criminal justice concentration, classes have expanded throughout TU in a variety of colleges and departments. BTU has provided strategic logistical and resource support for FCHE as well as funding inside-out training for professors across campus.
Professor Michelle Manasse (criminal justice) has been involved in prison-based education since 2013 and now serves as the lead for FCHE in the Division of Academic Affairs. In this role, she has assisted in the development of an interdisciplinary studies major for prison exchange program ensuring course rotation and communicating with faculty, chairs and deans about the program. A veteran of inside-out course offerings, Dr. Manasse has offered four courses focusing on the criminal justice system.
“It’s often said that teaching inside correctional facilities is a transformative experience, and it truly is. In my experience, students who are incarcerated often value the intellectual interactions (i.e., the readings; the assignments; the conversations) in a profound way. Students regularly comment not just on what they have learned, but also on how the course made them feel human again, made them feel seen (again or, for some, for the first time) as individuals with meaningful ideas. It is a beautiful reminder of the power of education, in general, but also the power we have to combat (even in small ways) the dehumanizing effect of the U.S. system of mass incarceration.”—TU Professor Michelle Manasse
FCHE has been led by Associate Professor Elyshia Aseltine (criminal justice), who has also received an Open Society Institute Fellowship in addition to being named the Mitten Professor in the College of Liberal Arts. As part of this unique support, awarded faculty have three years to develop a project. Dr. Aseltine has developed a timeline that will connect faculty and students as co-coordinators for program and course development. This includes a unique study-away course focused on race and punishment in the United States, a regional conference and a set of interlinked courses to be taught in the spring of 2023 impacting over 300 students with the theme ‘The Problem of Prisons’. This distinct set of courses will meet on the same date and times in the spring in order to facilitate shared speakers, events and other experiential opportunities.
Courses include COMM 470: The Rhetoric of Abolition taught by Dr. Jennifer Potter, CRMJ 370: Gender and Incarceration taught by Dr. Ashley Kilmer, EDUC 270: School to Prison Pipeline by Dr. Jessica Shiller, and THEA 680 taught by Theatre professor Tavia LaFolette among others. For LaFolette this is an opportunity to bring her prior experience with the Inside-Out program to bear on course offerings at Towson University. As she states:
“We will be meeting with artists, activists, and organizations in the area working in the field, while in tandem reading and analyzing articles, plays, films and other “art as action” projects. The class will culminate in the final project, open to the public, derived from our work throughout the semester. I am thrilled to be interacting and cross-pollinating with the nine other courses, which I am confident will add dimension and new perspectives for all.”—TU Professor Tavia LaFolette
The Mitten professorship has enabled Dr. Aseltine time and resource support to honor the time and expertise of those who will be participating in the common experiences uniting all of the courses this spring. Some of these experiences include featured community groups and speakers including More Than Our Crimes which amplifies the voices of the nearly 200,000 Americans in federal prison—many of them people of color. In addition, the organization Out for Justice will work with faculty and students. Out For Justice is an organization led by individuals who are both directly and indirectly impacted by the criminal legal system advocating for the reform of policies and practices that adversely affect successful reintegration into society. Their mission is to engage, educate, and empower individuals with criminal records in Maryland to create structural change through legislation, policy reform and advocacy. Other shared experiences include walking tours, documentary screenings and even performance art by Pati Hernandez, creator of Telling My Story.