National Conference on Higher Education in Prison – Collaboration Beyond Campus: Building Connections Between the Prison and Univesity

Nalini Nadkarni with Sustainability in Prisons Project at Evergreen State College

Nalini created a science lecture series and lab to produce sustainable operations, education, scientific research, and conservation. This includes organic gardens, bee keeping, water catching, composting, recycling, raising butterflies, prairie plant restoration, etc.

This program allows students to develop science skills, collaboration skills, and critical thinking.

She also took views of nature to supermax prisons by creating large installations.

Below is her TED Talk.

George Lombardi with Missouri Department of Corrections

George is the director of MDOC. Prison, he said, is like a small city and has the same operational needs. He reminded us that when bringing interns into the prison that every major has a role in the facility.

He also suggested that staff are offered the same opportunities, for he sees staff struggling with their own education or their children’s education.

George has observed that having colleges and educational programs in MDOC change the environment in a positive way.

He is an advocate for an dog training program to save dogs that face euthanization.  This program connects the city to the prison which makes the community see prisoners as something other than what is on tv. It also shows that the people in this program can give something back to the community. Many of the staff and community members later adopt the trained dogs. Participants in this program keep a journal of their experience that is then transferred to the adoptive parents to be able to know their dog better.

A unique aspect of George’s program policies is that all prisoners have access to programming. He believes that limiting programming based on the length of the sentence does not treat the person.

Jody Lewen with Prison University Project

Jody joins correctional officer organizations and goes to their conventions to incorporate their worldview into their program’s training to better describe officers and how to work well within the prison environment.

She stated that officers are often vilified and demonized by outside volunteers. We need to listen and hear their concerns; provide eye contact, be aware of your body language, say hello, and reach out to staff as individuals and their professional organizations. Have conversations about education in prison with them.

Sean Pica with Hudson Link for Higher Education, Inc. 

I wasn’t able to take notes during Sean’s presentation, but check out their program! You can also watch some videos about their work on their vimeo channel.

National Conference on Higher Education in Prison – Creating the Prison Classroom: From Policy to Practice

Below are my note from the session on Creating the Prison Classroom: From Policy to Practice. Some of my notes here are not as in depth, because this panel was so interesting to listen to! Take the time to check out their programs!

Brenda Dann-Messier, United States Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education

Brenda, being in a government, spoke to the audience as a government official, similar to a stump speech. While I could be more critical of what she had to offer, she did offer information about what the U.S. Education Department was doing for prison education. I would refer many people to check out their website and see what is available; especially the following:

Rebecca Ginsburg with Education Justice Project

Rebecca’s talk focused on creating a more humane learning environment in prison classrooms.

The biggest challenge we face in higher education in prisons is us; what we, outsiders going inside prisons, bring into our programs such as our attitudes and biases. Some of the ways to address these are to be aware of the following items:

  1. Micro-aggressions: These are subtle, demeaning insults against specific people that are verbal and often non-intentional. For example, if someone states “You are taking that too personally.”

  2. Cultural humility: This term is when one adopts a courious attitude with a humble approach to learn about others. This takes emphasis off of our own experiences. An example of lacking cultural humility is when you are speaking to a group of black men and you are telling them about what black men think.

No one works with a prison education program to hurt others feelings, but the question is: Can we come as we are? This is especially important if our privilege has never been challenged.

Suggestions to improve the learning environment is to create safe spaces where people can voice struggles and feelings, support difficult dialogues and the skills to talk about oppression, provide space to have such conversations, and build cultural humility.

Rob Scott with Productive Prison Landscapes Program of the Education Justice Project

Rob began his talk by introducing us to the higher education in prison list serve. He also made the clarification that though the conference had been using the term correctional center/institution we really mean prison, for our system is one that is clearly punishment focused and not one that has programs and services that really try to rehabilitate/correct those behind bars.

Rob introduced to many and encouraged to all the use of critical pedagogy in our work.

He also suggested that we reject and challenge sectarianism; Party A cannot liberate party B without party B’s involvement. We need to stop doing things to others but with others.

As we work together we need to reject positism. We can take a stance that it is not only recidivism that we focus on, because we also need to stress the importance of knowledge.

Keyes Stevens with Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project

Keyes project focuses on giving educational opportunities that giving educational opportunities that give students the insights to see that they are learners and that they can succeed in learning. See pictures from the project here (photos by Ann Hermes).

She stressed that we need to be just as compassionate to correctional staff as much as we are with our students.

With her program in Alabama, the DOC  as of a partner to her program as higher education institutions are to the point that they advocate for her program and have asked for it’s expansion.

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.