Most Grinnell College students take the summer off from studying. But this summer, 15 students in prison are taking a full slate of courses, including College Writing, Musicianship, and speech. Earlier this summer, these men went through a very selective admissions process to become the second cohort of students in the Liberal Arts in Prison Program’s (LAPP) First Year of College Program. These students are enrolled in a rich, rigorous academic program equivalent to a year at Grinnell College.
Students in prison cite a variety of reasons they applied for the program. Many of them talk about the program’s effect on their families; one participant says he often challenges his daughter, a high school senior, to earn more college credits than he has. The male students are exceptionally dedicated: “Never, not even at Grinnell College, have I taught students who were so committed to their studies,” says George Drake, president emeritus and professor emeritus of history, who has taught two full courses in prison.
The LAPP also hosts an extensive student volunteer program. During the past three years, nearly one in ten Grinnell students participated. That makes it one of the most enrolled-in cocurricular programs the College offers.
Student volunteers design and facilitate courses in almost every discipline — from history, biology, and religious studies to workshops in the arts — at the two nearby Iowa state prisons, the women’s state correctional facility in Mitchellville and the men’s prison in Newton. They also tutor GED and math at both facilities and at the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo.
The program is not only popular, it’s powerful. “Teaching in prison, more than anything else I did as a student at Grinnell, made me a believer in the power of the liberal arts to enrich and transform lives,” says Emily Guenther ’07, who volunteered as a student and has been full-time director of the program for the past four years.
Part of the reason for prison program’s popularity and success may be that it combines two key Grinnell values — commitment to liberal arts education and commitment to social justice.
Another reason for the program’s success: It works. For one testimonial to the effectiveness of this program, read the articulate and passionate account of John Hammers, one of the program’s former students, in the Summer 2012 issue of The Grinnell Magazine, coming soon to your mailbox (or The Grinnell Magazine Summer 2012 (PDF)).
Sign up for the newsletter to stay up-to-date on program activities. The Liberal Arts in Prison Program is funded entirely by donations and grants. To learn how to support the program, visit the program’s website.