Mission & Goals of the Liberal Arts in Prison Program

The Liberal Arts in Prison Program (LAPP) provides liberal arts education to people incarcerated in Iowa.

The LAPP began with a single class in the spring of 2003. Since then, the program has evolved into a full-fledged college program that enrolls cohorts of incarcerated students in a demanding, rich curriculum that offers up to 60 credits from Grinnell College. Students from campus support this program by offering tutoring and research assistance to incarcerated students, editing an annual literary anthology, and organizing special events, performing in musical events, and organizing a regular faculty lecture series.

During this radical expansion, the program has stayed true to its original vision of reciprocal learning and open intellectual exchange: exchange that affirms the power of a liberal arts education to support human flourishing.


The Liberal Arts in Prison Program started in the spring of 2003 as a creative writing workshop at the Newton Correctional Facility. Howard Burkle, professor emeritus of religious studies, taught the first course, which included four Grinnell student participants. When Professor Burkle could not continue teaching the following semester, Laura Matter ’05 and Ursula Hill ’05 facilitated the program’s transition into a student-run, student-staffed volunteer program.

The following years have seen a steady and radical expansion in the program: course offerings expanded from creative writing to other creative arts courses, and then to topics across the liberal arts, and faculty began giving a series of once-a-week lectures.

In the fall of 2008, the College hired Emily Guenther ’07, who had been a student leader of the program, as full-time program director and offered its first college-level course at Newton. In spring 2009, the faculty approved a 5-year pilot to develop and implement a credit-bearing program at the Newton Correctional Facility.

See the program summary from fall 2009 to summer 2012 for more information about the early history of the program.


“As a teaching and learning community, the College holds that knowledge is a good to be pursued both for its own sake and for the intellectual, moral, and physical well-being of individuals and of society at large.”--Grinnell College Mission Statement

The Liberal Arts in Prison Program extends these convictions to incarcerated students at local prisons in order to engage with them in excellent liberal arts learning. We believe that engaging incarcerated students improves teaching and learning for everyone who participates and enhances our dedication to the core values of the College.

Development of the College Program

In the spring of 2009, the College approved a pilot program to develop and implement a credit-bearing program at the Newton Correctional Facility (NCF), which was reviewed and regularized after five years. The program is designed to encompass an excellent and diverse course of study at the introductory level to prepare incarcerated students for further higher education upon their release.

The accredited LAPP program enrolls incarcerated students in a cohort-based, intensive college program where they earn up to 60 Grinnell College credits. The effort began with a single for-credit course in fall 2009. The offerings doubled in 2010–11 to include two courses in the fall and three in the spring, and now typically include between three and four courses all year long. Incarcerated students apply and are admitted to the program through an admissions process and commit to enrolling in every course offered each semester.

LAPP admitted its first class into this cohort program in June 2011, and continues to enroll cohorts around twice per year. Participants cite varying reasons for applying to the program: some want to give their children something to be proud of; others want to make best of their time inside; and others credit a love of learning. All admire Grinnell and say they feel honored to be meaningfully associated with the College.

In order to provide a degree-granting pathway for incarcerated students, LAPP began a pilot collaboration with Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) in fall 2019. The goal of this pilot is to create an articulation agreement that allows incarcerated students a pathway to an Associate of Arts (AA) degree from DMACC, using a mixture of Grinnell and DMACC credits.

Effects of the Program on Students and Faculty on Campus

In 2012, the Liberal Arts in Prison Program conducted a survey of all current and past volunteers, including both students and faculty, to show how the program affects faculty, on-campus students, and College alumni who participated. This extensive assessment reflects the ongoing experiences of students and faculty who participate.

Below are some examples of student, alumni, and faculty responses to the program:

“[The program] has lead to direct engagement with folks whom I would be otherwise unlikely to encounter;...it has improved my pedagogical skills and my ability to discuss complicated material with a wider variety of people; it has exposed me to the humiliation — all too quotidian for too many people across the globe — of checkpoints and pat-downs.” — Current Student

“Being able to pass on a basic understanding of and appreciation for the liberal arts has given my education a concrete output and reinforced my belief in the importance of the liberal arts.” — Current Student

“Seeing the manifestations of a liberal arts education and the impact of students born out of this kind of educational system has greatly motivated me, in not only my school work but also other areas I feel passionate about.” — Current Student

“[Volunteering] in prison has revealed and helped me challenge my own [subconscious] notions about race, class and gender. It has also pushed me to learn more about the US prison system and interrogate the way we as a society construct crime, punishment, and people who fall into those categories.” — Current Student

“Teaching at the prison really showed me how I can use my liberal arts education to foster positive change.” — Alum

“I taught a class that was a reflection of one of the classes I was currently taking. Getting the prisoners’ diverse perspectives on the course material helped me to better engage with the materials in class, and gave me a deeper understanding of the course work, and its real-life applications.” — Alum

“Participating in the prison program helped highlight the power of liberal arts education and also of how effective it can be for creating community.” — Alum

“[The prison program] has inspired me to a whole new level of appreciation for the potential impact I might have on students. It has given me a chance to work with students with a unique degree of intensity and passion that truly reinvigorates my work on campus.” — Faculty

“It has helped me think about how I present material to students with a wide range of backgrounds. Teaching … in Grinnell sometimes traps me into thinking I am connecting with all the students because some of them are quiet about what they don’t know. I think teaching in the prison has made me more skillful in bringing all my students into the same conversation.” — Faculty

“Teaching in prison has changed my cynicism...because I constantly deal with students who have a hunger and deep respect for knowledge, and are willing to pursue almost any subject matter for its own sake.” — Faculty

See the complete results of the 2012 assessment for more information about how the program improves teaching and learning on campus.

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