Today 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.