News, On Campus

Conway Emphasizes the Benefits of Restorative Practices in Prisons

Spending time in the classroom benefits incarcerated individuals because it allows them to feel like students rather than prisoners, according to Patrick Conway, director of Boston College’s Prison Education Program.

“[The classroom] was a place where students themselves could be treated like students and scholars and learners, rather than just mere criminals or prisoners, which is what I had observed how they’d been treated up until that point,” Conway said.

Conway spoke on Tuesday as part of the Lynch School of Education and Human Development’s Experience, Reflection, and Action seminar for first-year students.

Founded in 2019, BC’s Prison Education Program offers courses to inmates at MCI-Shirley, a medium-security men’s prison in Shirley, Mass. According to Conway, there are currently 62 students enrolled in the program, and over 20 courses are offered—all taught by BC faculty. 

“We prioritize giving tangible skills to build careers,” Conway said. “We really want to allow students to pursue their own personal interests and to develop those with mentorship from faculty.”

Conway discussed the implementation of restorative justice practices—working to build trust and respect through listening and dialogue—with inmates at MCI-Shirley. According to Conway, restorative justice practices attempt to help incarcerated populations reflect on their actions and address their underlying needs. 

Conway said he feels the United States’ criminal justice policy has long ignored these practices and instead chooses to solely punish prisoners.

“We’re a highly punitive culture,” Conway said. “And I think we also tend to view as a culture that prison is not just the punishment itself, it’s also the place for punishment to occur.” 

Conway said he had a firsthand look into what life is like for incarcerated individuals while he worked as a criminal investigator for the District of Columbia Public Defender’s Office.

“I found that insight into the criminal justice system and even just sitting in courts, kind of horribly depressing,” Conway said. “It was all about processing people out of society, and I think oftentimes what I observed was that it was ignoring people kind of as humans, that there was no recognition of human lives at stake here.”

According to Conway, restorative justice practices, like teaching courses for inmates, allows people to reflect on their time in prison and set goals for the future.

“I think we really prioritize non-prescriptive practices of self reflection,” Conway said. “Oftentimes, in prison, you’re basically just told what to do all day. Go here, use the bathroom at this time, go to sleep now. In our program, we want the opposite—students to put their lives into some context and make sense of it on their own terms, and then set their own goals.”

Christian Miranda, a formerly incarcerated individual who participated in the BC Prison Education Program, spoke alongside Conway. Miranda described the frustration he felt with the lack of opportunities he had while incarcerated. 

“I was sitting there bored to death,” Miranda said. “The jobs they have [in prison] are archaic. You’re not going to leave there becoming a seamstress. You’re not going to work in a sewing shop and come home and progress too much.”

Miranda said through the BC program, he was able to take a variety of classes and meet professors who changed his life. He said he feels like he was given the opportunity to set his life back on track and aims to graduate from BC with a bachelor’s degree from the Woods College of Advancing Studies.

“I’ve been reformed by the program,” Miranda said. “So, my intention is to graduate, get this degree, tell some of my children, as well as myself, and my friends and family—people who love me—that it doesn’t matter what you go through in life, you’ll always be able to bounce back.””

September 21, 2023