by Jilleen Barrett & Kelly Cwik, Asst. A&E Editor & Contributor
The Engaging, Empowering, Educating Means Change program — also known as E3MC — is bringing the Manhattan College education into prisons.
The program, run by Andrew Skotnicki, Ph.D, gives professors and students across all five schools the unique opportunity to experience MC courses inside the Rikers Island and Westchester County correctional centers, alongside inmates who are also taking these courses. Skotnicki teaches one course, Ethics in Criminal Justice, and tries to recruit other professors to teach others.
E3MC coordinator and MC alum Elizabeth Stenson explained the course looked different this semester due to COVID-19, but was still held virtually.
All of the incarcerated students were able to get access to computers to learn remotely this semester, which meant that students did not get the same experience as Stenson but still got some semblance of what the class meant.
Stenson took the class during her undergraduate years at Manhattan and changed her major to accommodate the program into her schedule.She saw another side to the justice system when she realized how it disproportionately affects marginalized groups.
“You can read about these issues (such as social justice) and fully believe that everything that’s happening right now is wrong, but until these people become your people you don’t feel how heavy these problems actually are,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “These personal connections make me want to fight harder and stronger for these communities … To put it simply, I would say this course took me from being just a white ally to being an accomplice.”
This was pertinent particularly because Skotnicki is not working on campus this semester, but still wanted to provide the opportunity of taking the class to any MC students and inmates who wanted it. Skotnicki sees a certain importance in educating inmates as he knows many of them never had the chance to go to college. He also knows that many students have no perception of what being incarcerated looks like.
“I know lifelong New Yorkers who have never set their foot in Brownsville or East New York or the South Bronx,” he said. “So I think it’s essential to our students that only see what goes on inside our jails, also see that the people that we lock away and brand as being less worthy of love and care and support and opportunity, that they are not only just as smart and as good as we are, but sometimes even better than because as they’ve suffered, they’ve matured.”
Stenson agreed, citing that the class has a certain aspect of it that strongly correlates with social justice. She and Skotnicki believe that everyone, regardless of a criminal record, deserves an equal chance at an education.
“We’ve constructed courses that not only play upon the strings of the individual professor, but tailor it to an audience of captive human beings,” Skotnicki said. “And so my task is no matter what we’re teaching — whether it’s physics, astronomy, or Shakespeare — to try to bend the curriculum a little bit to help shed some light upon the nature of what we do to our poorest citizens who are inevitably the people who end up in our jails.”
Stenson personally knew Devon Greene, who participated in the program while in prison. After he was released, he took advantage of the full scholarship to the college that the program entitled him to and earned his bachelor’s degree. He spoke to AM New York about this experience.
“I am still in disbelief,” Green said. “People coming from incarceration aren’t supposed to obtain a bachelor’s degree. You helping us, formerly incarcerated individuals, is much needed and appreciated and we’ll continue to progress in life as a result. People think that education in order to get a job is what’s so important about helping the incarcerated. But it’s the mental connections we make that have and continue to reshape how we think.”
Ben Bagbek, a junior double majoring in environmental economics and political science, took the class and feels the program is not only life changing, but beneficial for students in that it demonstrates what it is like to be incarcerated.
“I was able to talk to people my age that were inside the prison systems, seeing their perspective and learning about their backgrounds humbled me … it was amazing,” he said. “They’re the funniest people, they can find humor in anything. Talking about the material with them and hearing their passion is amazing. It’s unfortunate that they do not have the same opportunities as I do. It’s all about perspective and where you’re from, I noticed how much was out of their hands and how we as a society uphold discriminatory judicial processes.”
Skotnicki further explained the social injustice that carries less fortunate people into the prison system.
“It’s a form of social death, it is, we never stopped punishing people … we sweep people away, and particularly we sweep away the minority poor,” he said. “And it’s not a question of these people are more criminal than the average Manhattan College students, they’re locked up because they’re poor, because they have no economic clout, no political clout.”
Bagbek also noted how the class changed the futures of the inmates as the program grants anyone within the prison who passes the course a full ride to the college once they’re released. Stenson explained, however, that many of them do not end up fulfilling the requirements for a degree.
“Students who plan to take this course should know the good that they’re doing,” she said. “It is unfortunate that a big majority of these scholarships remain unfulfilled by these students … you’re giving these students the opportunity they never had to change their life, to obtain a high quality education they previously could not have obtained.”
Skotnicki agreed, saying he believes it influences the lives of everyone involved.
“I can’t determine just exactly what impact it has on [the MC students] view of our society and their particular role and responsibility,” he said. “But what I can tell you is that we’ve had dozens of students who have had career changes as a result of taking the class.”