National Conference on Higher Education in Prison – Jody Lewen

The keynote of yesterday was Jody Lewen, Executive Director of the Prison University Project. After her speech, many people in the audience cried out – finally… you expressed what I’ve been trying to say for so long! It was truly wonderful to see her speak.

The goals of the Prison University Project are to:

The central goals of the College Program at San Quentin are to educate and challenge students intellectually; to prepare them to lead thoughtful and productive lives inside and outside of prison; to provide them with skills needed to obtain meaningful employment and economic stability post-release; and to prepare them to become providers, leaders, and examples for their families and communities.

Through the College Program at San Quentin, as well as other education and outreach activities, the Prison University Project also aims to challenge popular myths and stereotypes about people in prison; to publicly raise fundamental questions about the practice of incarceration; and to incubate and disseminate alternative concepts of justice, both within and beyond the academy.

Jody’s speech was on how higher education is transformative to students and teachers, but also makes systemic change to the prison system. The following is the notes that I took during her speech and with the following Q &A.

One of the first issues addressed was the concept / social notion of bad people who do bad things who deserve to be punished and need to suffer. This notion is diversionary to the true state of brutality that takes place during incarceration. This notion also places the prison system in the role of the hero by saving good people..

If you do question the prison system and how it works (even by suggesting higher education needs to be available) some people are angered – calling you soft on crime. But, as we fear “bad people” we are also profiting from them. For example, the media and also politicians are seen as saviors by pushing beds in prisons to be filled and therefor having safe communities. There is also the sentiment that punishment of incarceration “cures” evilness with being forceful and controlling; our society does not view justice without sentencing punishment.

Anxiety about prisons is justified by the argument that prisoners are doing the time they deserve. But if we treated our general population like we do prisoners we would see this treatment as inhumane.

The general public feels like they know why and how long people should be in prison without knowing what prison is like… and what services like higher education is like in prison… and what life and opportunities are like after prison.

There are many ways higher education challenges the Prison Industrial Complex:

  1. Education empowers people to develop strong oral and written skills to be heard in the outside word. This includes being able to find the words that you want to say. This is a challenge because the status given to prisoners usually denies their voice and position people behind  bars as important and valuable in society. These communication skills can be used in journalism, continued education, business work, etc. that will lead to their success that stems from encouragement and not punishment.
  2. Incarcerated students’ social and political networks & social capital are established in social institutions. For example, this increases voices in the academy to provide critical content in education in general that many people partake in, especially those who may not even see mass incarceration happening.
  3. Stereotypes fall as you meet people, see their faces, and know each other. Students behind bars just don’t become people for those on the outside, but relationships develop which create responsibilities to each other. Getting to meet students challenges individual beliefs that students are criminals and should be dehumanized.
  4. When a person involved in higher education comes into a prison to teach/tutor/observe, they are transformed; many people state that it is life changing. Once people have been inside of the institution  their experience and feelings will be related to their family and friends; a transformation that happens to one person by one visit can spiral outwards and change perceptions many people have about our students.

A question posed to this speaker was: What do you do with two groups that holds very different values (educators and prison staff)?

The answer discussed is that you don’t need to argue / lecture about the moral or right thing to do. If we honor staff’s experiences and opinions, the return will be respect and give your program a chance to run its course. Some officers see our opinions as privileged; for example, higher education may not be available to people in the staff’s family and community and it may be a challenge to see people behind bars having an opportunity for free education. Once your program is known, it will get a good reputation with the officers.

An other discussion piece was that we need to resist the narrative that these programs of higher education in prison fix people. We are not fixing them, but rather are refilling and reigniting.

Below is a short video so you could see a little about Jody’s program:

National Conference on Higher Education in Prison – Patience, Persistence and Programming: Starting and Sustaining a Prison Education Program

The first session of the conference was titled Patience, Persistence, and Programming: Starting and Sustaining a Prison Education Program and featured three coordinators / directors from different programs.

Emily Guenther with Grinnell College’s Liberal Arts in Prison Program

A unique aspect of this program is that it was started by undergraduate students.

One aspect of her presentation featured the paperwork that was required of her to solidify her program and provide courses for academic credit. The university she is affiliated with required her to prove the university students’ safety who volunteered with the program inside of the prison.

To do so, she asked a librarian for help with research to see if there was any information about violent acts happening upon prison volunteers. The librarian found no such documentation; the librarian then provided a statement on not finding any recording any incidents for Emily’s report. She also reached out to other prison higher education programs to see if there had ever been any incidents that have happened with their work; everyone said that no violent acts had happened to any volunteers. Emily then produced a document that featuring the lack of incidents to fulfill the university’s need of proof of safety.

Below is a past panel from this program:

Barbara Sherr Roswell with Goucher Prison Education Partnership

Barbara began her talk with sharing the many issues where we, doing work in prison education, struggle finding balance, such as – build it and they will come vs. build it to last; fly under the radar vs. show your achievements; provide intellectual courses vs. provide foundational courses; how much time spent in the prison vs. on campus; culture of campus and academia vs. culture of prison, etc. While these unique balancing issues exist, many of us face them and we need to talk about the issues to find methods to fulfill the needs of students and the mission of our programs.

She also stressed that key stakeholders in prison education – inside and outside of the prison, supporters and those leery of the program – to know who to ask questions when you are in need. For example, how to create the logistics of brining flash drives in and out of the prison.

Jenifer Drew with Boston University Prison Education Program

The Boston University Prison Education Program began in 1972 and is in two facilities (a men’s a women’s). Jennifer spoke on having the right relationship with the DOC (Department of Corrections) that is balanced with the controlled environment that the DOC has and the university’s environment that has more creative freeness. She highlighted a number of relationships that can be developed between universities and DOCs. Some of them are:

Outside: University runs education program

  • Pro: university is able to use their creativity in the program
  • Con: frustration in the suppression of academic integrity for the DOC to meet their security concern

Into: University enters DOC and teachers/tutors leave after their time

  • Pro: more people can enter prisons and experience education in prison
  • Con: since teachers/tutors leave after their time commitment, many people do not have the opportunity to see the whole process a student goes through

Between: University and DOC has an independent contractor that works with both agencies

  • Pros and cons: I had never heard of this model before, so I forgot to take notes on this section! But, this is how the Boston University Prison Education Partnership operates.

Former DOC: Former DOC employees run education program inside of prison

  • Pro: staff knows security issues and DOC rules

Jennifer asks us: What is your relationship like with the university? What is your relationship like with the DOC? What are to pros and cons you face?

A resource Jennifer suggested to all of us is Prison Study Project from Harvard which part of their project lists all higher education programs in the United States.

National Conference on Higher Education in Prison – Welcoming

prison conferenceToday was the first day of the National Conference on Higher Education in Prison. It has been absolutely amazing! I cannot wait to see what else the next two days have in store for us!

We were welcomed by Dean Dr. Jennifer Giancola of St. Louis University School for Professional Studies and champion for the university’s prison education program. Their education program is described as:

The Saint Louis University Prison Program offers an Associates of Arts degree to members of the ERDCC community through the School for Professional Studies.

Founded in 2008, the Prison Program initially offered a certificate in Theological Studies to fifteen men incarcerated at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Corrections Center (ERDCC) in Bonne Terre, MO. The first certificate class graduated in 2010.  A grant from the Hearst Foundation in 2010 enabled the Prison Program to offer an Associate of Arts degree to incarcerated persons and prison staff.  Students study aspects of society and culture; improve comprehension, speaking, and writing skills; think critically about their future; and develop competencies enabling incarcerated persons to reenter society with prospects for positive experiences, and staff to advance in their careers.

A unique aspect of their program is that the prison’s staff can also partake in the education program. She described that the staff were skeptical at first as to why they were offering them the chance at the program as well (wondering what the catch was), but now staff are embracing the program. Incarcerated students and staff who are students are usually taught separately with the exception of a few workshops, due primarily because of power / authority issues between staff and people behind bars.


A strategy provided to maintain a healthy relationship with prison administration was to have administrators come to the program to see how it operates. Many administrators have had a positive response to their visit and a dialogue about the education programs state would naturally be addressed.

A question asked to Dr. Giancola and other key leaders was how the program is justified, especially since two main arguments are commonly made: education is vital and is for everyone & education provides a safer prison atmosphere, reduces costs, and reduces recidivism. The answer given was that both are necessary to be used, because one or the other will strike someone as a rational to approve of, fund, or participate in the higher education programs.

The Making of History and Improving Reference Services (in the 1980s)

Michael Sawyer’s  “Inmates Do Ask Questions: Automation and Reference Service in a Correctional Setting” dates itself when it states that “changes included the addition of portable videocassette and compact-disk machines,” but some valuable lessons can still be learned from this 1989 article.

First of all, we get a piece of prison librarianship history:

In January 1987, history was made at the Chillicothe Correctional Institute (CCI) library in Ohio when the prison library automated its catalog and circulation systems. This innovative program, implemented only after two years of planning and developing, and with the help from a Library Services and Construction Act (LCSA) grant, was the first of its type in the country. (49)

The library was lucky that there was a man behind bars that was a computer programmer before prison who was willing to become a library clerk. The library clerk’s time and skills were instrumental to this piece of history and improving user services.

Once their automated system was accessible for patrons, the focus was on improving reference services which included updating reference materials with funding provided from their grant. This was essential because:

The collection was desperately in need of help since the only area that was reasonably current was the collection of telephone directories provided without charge from the local telephone company. These directories are used by inmates almost constantly for parole planning, communicating with families, and answering reference queries. (50)

The library staffed the reference desk with an inmate library clerks that was trained to help with frequent reference interactions. The clerk would assist:

other inmates in satisfying their simple research needs, such as for addresses of political leaders and organizations, and answers to sports-related queries. (50)

Medical reference questions were the trickiest interactions to provide information and materials for because medical information is highly restricted materials in the prison.

There seems to be a fear by correctional officials that materials such as the Physicians’ Desk Reference or the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy will encourage inmates to self-diagnose or fake symptoms that could result in potential litigation. (50)

Implementing an automated system allowed the prison library to be more efficient in user friendliness (patrons being able to find their books on their own and quickly) and be able to focus on reference questions (and librarians and inmate workers being able to find resources efficiently as well). This new efficiency by the library staff and patrons led the library to see new excitement from the patrons for they were able to use the library much more differently then before and it became a more fulfilling experience.

But implementing automation is not in the historic past for the prison librarianship profession; it is the future of some prison libraries who still manually check out books and have a card catalog.


Sawyer, Michael. “Inmates Do Ask Questions: Automation and Reference Service in a Correctional Setting.” Reference Services Review. 17.4 (Winter 1989): 49-54.