Mission & Goals of the Liberal Arts in Prison Program

The Liberal Arts in Prison Program provides liberal arts education to incarcerated men and women in Iowa’s prisons and Youth at the state training school for boys. 

The Liberal Arts in Prison Program 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 equivalent to the first year at Grinnell, and an expansive, multi-tiered student volunteer program.

During this radical expansion, the program has stayed true to its original vision of reciprocal learning and open intellectual exchange: exchange that enriches lives both inside and outside the fences and affirms the transformative power of a liberal arts education. The LAPP owes its success to this unique combination of social justice work and liberal arts learning.


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; students began offering courses at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women, and faculty began giving a series of once-a-week lectures.

In the fall of 2008, the college hired a full-time program coordinator and offered its first college-level course at Newton; in spring 2009, the faculty approved a 5-year pilot to develop and implement a First Year of College Program at the Newton Correctional Facility.

See the program summary from Fall 2009 to Summer 2012 for more information.


"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 them in experiences of new knowledge, respectful exchange of ideas, and progressive levels of achievement. We believe this program supports the work of corrections staff to protect communities and transform lives, making the prisons safer, and preparing inmates to return renewed to their families and communities. Participation in the Liberal Arts in Prison Program enhances our dedication to the core values of the College, intensifies learning, and prepares our graduates for mature civic engagement.

First Year of College Program

In the spring of 2009, the college approved a pilot program to develop and implement a First Year of College Program at the Newton Correctional Facility, which will be reviewed after five years. The program is designed to encompass an excellent, rigorous, and diverse course of study at the introductory level to prepare incarcerated students for further higher education upon their release.

The accredited LAPP program now enrolls incarcerated students in a rigorous first year at Grinnell. The effort began with a single for-credit course in Fall 2009. The offerings doubled in 2010–2011 to include two courses (8 credits total) in the fall and three (9 credits total) in the spring. This was the emergence of a new model equivalent to a first year of college. Incarcerated students apply and are admitted to the program via a rigorous selection process, and commit to enrolling in every course offered each semester.

LAPP admitted its first class into what is now known as the First Year of College Program in June 2011. Participants cited widely varying reasons for applying to the program: some wanted to give their children something to be proud of; others wanted to make best of their time inside; and still others simply credited a love of learning. All admire Grinnell and say they feel honored to be meaningfully associated with the College. The men enrolled in this program have proved exceptionally dedicated to their work and form a strong system of support for one another. They identify as college students first and prisoners last. Many of them talk about the program’s effect on their families, as well: one participant says he often challenges his daughter, a high school senior, to earn more college credits than he has.

This June, LAPP proudly enrolled its second class to the program. The new cohort is taking a full slate of courses this summer (the first time courses have been offered in summer). We look forward to offering a rich and varied academic program over the next year.

Program Assessment

Recently the Liberal Arts in Prison Program conducted a survey of all current and past volunteers, including both students and faculty. The results were overwhelmingly positive. From this survey we learned that 1 of 7 students of the recently graduated class of 2012 volunteered in the program. Additionally "fully half of respondents answered that they were currently involved in an activity that directly related to their prison program experience." These endeavors include "teaching, social work, or directly working with prison-related projects or careers."

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 assessment for more information.

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