Matt DelSesto, Boston College

While Matt DelSesto ’12 was studying human development and philosophy at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, he participated in the University’s popular PULSE program, which combines classroom learning with service placements in Greater Boston. His posting was at Boston’s Suffolk County House of Correction, a medium-security prison; his supervisor was Jim DiZio, the prison’s education director, and a 1990 Lynch School alum.

The placement ended nine months later, but DelSesto’s interest in prison education, and his relationship with DiZio, had just begun. More than a decade later, DelSesto is the driving force behind two BC-prison educational initiatives: The Inside-Out Program, which connects BC students and incarcerated individuals in the study of criminal justice, and the recently launched College Pathways Program, which helps incarcerated men and women navigate the logistics of higher education following release.

Now a part-time faculty member in the sociology department, DelSesto coordinates and teaches in both programs, strengthening BC’s link with the wider community, and opening up access to transformative learning experiences for students of all backgrounds.

“It’s amazing what he’s doing,” said David Goodman, the Lynch School’s associate dean for strategic initiatives and external relations. “None of this would have happened without him; he’s the initiator, the catalyst, and the energy behind it all.”

The original Inside-Out Program began 25 years ago in a Pennsylvania prison and has since grown into an international network of more than 200 correctional and higher education partnerships. DelSesto initially encountered it while working at New York’s Rikers Island jails, and was struck by the model’s power to promote meaningful dialogue between those with diverse backgrounds and life experiences. When he eventually returned to BC to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology, he contacted Goodman to discuss launching an Inside-Out course at BC. His next calls were to DiZio and Sociology Professor Stephen Pfohl, who were eager to collaborate; in 2017, the group was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Hearst Foundations to activate their plans.

“I thought the whole idea was good but the selling point for me was that incarcerated individuals would actually become BC enrollees,” said DiZio. “They get BC credits and a transcript; that’s powerful.”

One year later, the first iteration of “Inside-Out: Perspectives on Crime, Corrections, and Justice,” appeared in the BC course catalog, open to students from three schools, as well as eligible men and women at the Suffolk County House of Correction. The first cohort of twenty students (ten each from BC and the prison) gathered inside the correctional facility in Fall 2018.

Dongjin Vasquez, one of the first “inside” students to enroll, recalls feeling “unsure about how these BC students would view us…(since we have) much different backgrounds compared to them.” While Vasquez had previously attended a local community college, some of his peers had never taken a college class; some BC students had never set foot in a prison.

DelSesto’s discussion-based course was designed to eliminate barriers and encourage students to share academic and lived experiences, and to learn from each other. Since he began teaching the course, it has never failed to achieve its objectives.

“Over the course of the semester, the group really learns as peers,” he said. “People come from different perspectives and that contributes to our understanding of an issue. A lot of inside students have experiences that aren’t reflected in academic research, and that raises questions that pushes everyone’s knowledge.”

BC student interest in the course has skyrocketed since it was introduced, which Goodman attributes to a growing relevance of criminal justice issues (many students became engaged after reading about the Boston College Prison Education Program, which launched in 2019) as well as an appreciation for experiential learning. “They know the difference between learning about, and learning within, and immersing themselves in it,” Goodman said. “I think there’s a real hunger for more applicable, vital, and alive versions of learning, where you’re literally set up to get in touch with your assumptions, and how different life experiences lead to very different ways of seeing, feeling, and being in the world.”

For some students, the course has had a lasting effect on their academic and career trajectories. Encouraged by his experience and the credits he earned through Inside-Out, Vasquez re-enrolled at his community college after release and received his associate degree in Spring 2022. He recently became a case manager at Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, where he supports people struggling with mental health and substance use. In the near future, he hopes to pursue a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. “The Inside-Out Program made me believe that people can change the current system,” he said. “It all starts with changing our perspective on it.”

Sheridan Miller ’20 was inspired to pursue a career in prison education after enrolling in the course in Fall 2019. As a Lynch School student studying juvenile justice, she was familiar with the school-to-prison pipeline and other curriculum topics, but it was the unique environment that elevated her learning to a new level.

“It was one of the best BC classes I took because of the depth and breadth of the conversations, especially with my inside peers about their educational journeys and their daily life within the carceral system,” she said. “At BC there’s a lot of emphasis on being men and women for others and doing service, but sometimes you’re disconnected from the people you’re really hoping to serve. This class wasn’t service; you were having conversations.”

Two years after graduating, Miller is the assistant director of policy and research at the New England Board of Higher Education, where she leads a grant-funded initiative convening regional stakeholders involved in prison higher education programs. This past fall, Miller enrolled in a master’s program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she’s studying education policy. Although unsure about her professional career, she wants to continue to improve and expand programs that bring higher education to students behind bars. “It’s the biggest passion I have in education policy, thanks to the Lynch School and the real experience I got with the Inside-Out Program,” she said.

One of the biggest challenges Miller faces in her current role is also one that DelSesto’s newest program, the College Pathways Program, is designed to address: How to ensure incarcerated students who enroll in higher education programs reap the benefit of their experience following release. At the Suffolk County House of Correction, prisoners serve terms of fewer than three years, which isn’t sufficient time to earn a degree. In the past, DiZio has partnered with an outside organization to provide college counseling services, but after the arrangement fizzled during the pandemic, he approached DelSesto and Goodman about starting something more sustainable.

“Our response was ‘Of course,’” recalled Goodman. “And then Matt does what he does so well: he just ran with it. I think it’s a great example of listening to our partner’s needs.”

The College Pathways Program launched in Summer 2022 as an eight-week, non-credit course designed to provide practical information about the college admissions and application process. Each week explores a different topic—from financial aid to selecting a major—and participants explore how college fits in with their long-term personal and professional goals. Twelve students have already received completion certificates, and a second session is underway.

For DelSesto, teaching the course has been a natural extension of his Inside-Out work, where inside students often seek his advice on their educational future, given their limited resources. “There’s clearly a need for space to talk informally about these college logistics,” he said. “We’re trying to do more to formalize the college advising and mentoring structure, so this course is a big step towards that.”

DelSesto maintains contact with some of the students who have passed through his programs (Vasquez has returned as a guest speaker on multiple occasions), and takes pride in the accomplishments of “inside” and “outside” alumni. He posts two sets of office hours: one at the House of Correction and another at BC, while seeking new ways to connect both worlds. During the pandemic, for example, he launched a virtual film and speaker series related to topics contained in the Inside-Out curriculum.

“I don’t know many people who could do what he does,” reflected DiZio, who has worked in prison education since 1992. “He’s quiet, but committed. He’s passionate, but he doesn’t overdo it. He just really cares.”

By Alix Hackett, Senior Digital Content Writer, Boston College