“Those walls aren’t there just to keep me in, but to keep you out.”
Tyrone W. (Prisoner and student)
Providing meaningful education in sites of incarceration is a difficult task. How do educators get inside the walls?
In 1994, the Clinton Administration withdrew Pell Grants and thus all funding for college education in US prisons. Prisoners were deemed unworthy of tertiary education. The disaster of this legislation (law was amended to omit prison populations) immediately impacted the prospects for tens of thousands of men and women, but also it crippled America’s critical thinking and cultural landscape.
With the stroke of the president’s pen, education – a cornerstone of the American dream narrative – was denied to a stipulated group by popular consensus. It was, and remains, discrimination defined.
Since that time, any college courses taught within US prisons have been supported entirely by non-profit organisations, brave foundation funding, volunteer hours and volunteer skills.
With this in mind, I’d like to bring to your attention some of the venerable organisations providing education despite innumerable legal and practical obstacles.
Prison Education Organisations
Recently, I took on a teaching role at Washington State Reformatory, one of four facilities at the Monroe Correctional Complex, WA. I teach in the University Behind Bars project, one of the programs run by the Prisoners Education Network (PEN).
PEN is a fledgling organisation that has just taken on an expanded curriculum, new teachers and a two year strategic plan for sustainable growth. It is the only college education provided to any inmates in the state of Washington.
In order to inform our growth we’ve been scrutinising other education programs across the United States.
Temple University, Philadelphia runs the Inside Looking Out program which pairs prisoners with students as peers to develop educational goals. For background, view this video by Tiffany Kimmel which describes the work at Oregon State Penitentiary.
The Prison University Project at San Quentin is the model program for the state of California.
John Jay College, New York runs the Prison Reentry Institute.
Boston University administers the Prison Education Program.
Bard College operates the Bard Prison Initiative.
Faith-based group Partakers in Massachusetts calls for sponsors to support its College Behind Bars program.
And, last but not least, is the business oriented Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) in Texas.
If you have a spare hour watch PEP’s director Catherine Rohr talk about the inspiration provided by the students and how they overturned her prior apathy and self-confessed ignorance to the needs of prisoners.
These are a mere selection. I’d be very happy to hear of more prison education programs from any corner of the US and beyond