Liberal Arts Colleges Reach Minds Behind Bars

January 04, 2013

Grinnell's Liberal Arts in Prison Program featured


 Lauren Sieben, Chronicle of Higher Education

Liberal-Arts Colleges Reach Minds Behind Bars

By Lauren Sieben

Re-published with permission of The Chronicle of Higher Education

John Hammers spent the past 12 years behind bars. His daily routine consisted mostly of playing pinochle or spades and watching sitcoms on television. Serving time for burglary, he wanted to better himself, but he had no outlet.

Although he was a GED tutor, opportunities to focus on his own education were scarce. He held a job in the library at the Newton Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in central Iowa with more than 1,100 inmates. The job paid 45 cents an hour—top scale for prison wages—but nowhere near enough to cover a college education: "How are you going to pay for college classes making pennies an hour?" he asked.

But during the 12 years Mr. Hammers spent in prison, he earned 12 semester hours of college credit, and they didn't cost him a dime. When he was released from Newton this past December, a week after his 31st birthday, he left with a semester of college under his belt—and, more important, a sense of direction.

Mr. Hammers took classes through Grinnell College's Liberal Arts in Prison Program. Located not far from Newton, the small, liberal-arts college is a member of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison. Grinnell's program is an experiment designed to harness the power of higher education in unlikely settings. Wardens, prisoners, and faculty members around the country have lauded such programs for reducing recidivism.

The three-institution consortium started in 2009 and grew from the success of Bard College's prison-education program, which started over a decade ago in New York. Now the Bard Prison Initiative operates five satellite campuses at prisons across the state, and has donated more than $300,000 to pilot programs at Grinnell and at Wesleyan University, in Connecticut.

Grinnell's program began as a student-run creative-writing workshop in 2003 that offered noncredit seminars to prisoners. The college first offered credit-bearing courses at Newton in 2009.

Mr. Hammers, who participated in Grinnell's program from the first seminars, took on a leadership role from inside the prison. He helped set up classrooms, tracked down TV's and projectors for professors, and talked up the classes among his fellow inmates. He says he wanted to further his education for a simple reason: He didn't want to end up back in prison.

"You just see a continual recycling of people coming in and out," he says. "After several years I was like, man, I don't want to be just another face in the crowd coming in and out."

Since leaving prison two months ago, Mr. Hammers, who is 31, has enrolled full time at Iowa Western Community College. He is applying for part-time customer-service jobs while taking classes in ethics, sociology, and developmental psychology. Eventually he hopes to transfer to a four-year university and major in social work or psychology.

He didn't spend any time in remedial courses before starting at Iowa Western—the classes he took at Newton were preparation enough. When he was assigned a five-page paper on the social-work code of ethics, he says, "I whipped it out in no time at all, with correct punctuation and the correct setup."

Grinnell officials are pleased with the prison program's performance, but uncertainties about finances could jeopardize the long-term presence of liberal-arts programs behind prison gates. Although Bard provided seed money to Wesleyan and Grinnell, it won't be a source of continuing financial support.

Over the next five years, Bard plans to expand its consortium to 10 institutions in 10 states. "Our goal is to help institutions like Wesleyan create programs like this," says Max Kenner, executive director and founder of the Bard project. "But our goal is not in the long term to become a middleman in philanthropy."

A National Model

The Bard Prison Initiative has become a national model for independent, privately financed education programs in prison. Staffed at first by a group of student volunteers in the late 1990s, it has grown into a credit-bearing college program. In 2005 the college granted its first behind-bars degree. Nearly 175 incarcerated men and women have graduated from the program since then.

Over the years, Bard's program has attracted attention from the news media (60 Minutes in 2007) and from colleges that aspire to emulate it in their own states' prisons. The program, Mr. Kenner says, shows inmates that Bard takes their education "as seriously as any other student's," right down to the caps and tassels that prisoners wear at commencement ceremonies.

Independent programs like Bard's are one of the few remaining sources of free or subsidized college education for inmates. Government support for prison education has been perennially unpopular. In 1994, President Clinton signed a federal law that barred inmates from receiving Pell Grants. As a result, each institution in the consortium covers the cost of tuition and fees for its students.

Mr. Kenner and his colleagues refer to a number of studies that show how educating prisoners both reduces recidivism and saves money. In 1997 the Correctional Education Association, a nonprofit group that helps those who provide services to incarcerated students, reported that every dollar spent on education returned more than two dollars in reduced prison costs to taxpayers. Other studies have shown that educating prisoners can reduce recidivism rates from about 60 percent to less than 15 percent.

In addition to GED coursework and adult basic education, some state prisons contract with community colleges for postsecondary courses. Many define "classroom" loosely, usually relying on distance learning. But each college in Bard's consortium sends faculty directly to the prison to teach. The admissions process is selective, and the level of academic rigor behind bars is equal to that of an on-campus course, according to each of the programs' directors.

To apply for Wesleyan's program, for example, inmates wrote a timed response to an excerpt of prose or poetry. An advisory board narrowed the applicant pool down to 50 men, who were then interviewed and asked to submit personal statements. The university admitted 19 men out of the 110 who applied.

The only prerequisite is a high-school diploma or a GED; the rest of the process is determined by inmates' "enthusiasm and a basic ability to do college-level work," says Emily Guenther, coordinator of Grinnell's program. "People can get pretty far with motivation."

The 'Educational Ghetto'

Inmates in Wesleyan and Grinnell's programs do not matriculate at either institution. Bard awards associate and bachelor's degrees to its incarcerated students, but they are not automatically admitted to the college's main campus upon release.

"There was some concern that these courses would not be as rigorous as traditional courses on campus," says Catherine Lechowicz, director of community service and volunteerism at Wesleyan, who runs the university's Center for Prison Education. "What I can say thus far is that ... the men in the program are performing equally as students on campus would."

The center, which operates at the nearby Cheshire Correctional Institution, is in the second year of its two-year pilot program. Courses have included "Greek Tragedy," "American Intellectual History," and "Human Biology."

Professors have stumbled upon some barriers in prison; for example, students don't have the Internet or access to science labs. At Grinnell, Ms. Guenther says, faculty members have found creative ways to work around those limitations. One quantum-mechanics professor, for example, videotaped himself performing lab work and brought the recording to Newton for a seminar.

Officials at Wesleyan and Grinnell can't yet say whether their incarcerated students will be more likely to stay out of trouble, once freed, than the general prison population will, but there have been early indications of the programs' influence.

"Obviously it's having an individual impact," says Ms. Lechowicz. "It's also having an impact on the block that they live on. They're bringing these readings back to the men that they live with. ... Then they have discussions. We see this as a ripple effect throughout the prison population."

At the Newton facility, in Iowa, employees say they have seen a change among inmates who have taken the classes. Grinnell's creative-writing courses helped prisoners understand how to express themselves, says Larry Lipscomb, an associate warden.

"Family members have contacted me and said they'd noticed a tremendous change in their sons or husbands or whoever the person may be," he says. The prisoners have benefited from face-to-face instruction, he adds.

Daniel Karpowitz, director of academics and policy at the Bard Prison Initiative, believes bringing liberal-arts colleges into prisons will help end the misconception that college in prison is an "educational ghetto."

Compensating the professors who teach in prison is especially crucial on that front, says Mr. Kenner, the project's director. They aren't doing charity work—the classes for incarcerated students are an extension of their on-campus jobs. "When you pay people, it says to them that it's not something they're doing to fulfill some need for doing charity," he says. "It's not a bake sale. It's real college."

'A Curtain Swept Aside'

The idea behind the consortium isn't just to change education in prison; it's to change higher education as an institution, Mr. Kenner says. "Elite colleges and universities are in such a bubble and are so ingrained in their habits on how to find students. We worry that they're losing so much American talent and so much American intellectual curiosity."

Traditional students have been instrumental not only in starting prison programs but also in sustaining them. Undergraduate volunteers can't offer for-credit course work, but they have provided tutoring to inmates and facilitated other noncredit academic experiences. And interacting with a subset of the population that historically has been ignored by elite colleges and universities is as beneficial to the traditional undergraduate as it is to an inmate, Mr. Karpowitz says.

"They've had a curtain swept aside from their immediate physical environment. When a campus engages with these issues, it gets them to think about what they do with their time and their $40,000-a-year education. It gives you pause."

Regardless of the consortium's anecdotal and statistical success, however, the unavoidable challenge for each of the programs—especially for Wesleyan's and Grinnell's—comes down to cash.

The consortium members receive little or no public funds for the work. Bard received a $6.5-million grant from the Open Society Foundations that it used to donate $160,000 to Wesleyan's pilot project and $150,000 to Grinnell's. The idea is that they will jump-start the national expansion of Bard's model. Both programs have acquired funds through other sources as well—grants, foundations, private donors—but it's unclear how long they can last on donated money alone.

Wesleyan plans to admit a second cohort of prisoners this fall and has been raising money accordingly. Although the Center for Prison Education has raised three years' worth of funds, it is still trying to determine how to establish long-term financing.

Grinnell hasn't yet found post-pilot support, but Ms. Guenther says she's optimistic.

Mr. Kenner maintains that it's the responsibility of liberal-arts colleges to incorporate incarcerated students into academe. He can rattle off the names of former inmates who have gone through Bard's program and are now on the path to bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, and Ph.D.'s, in addition to those who quickly found work upon release. Some have continued their education at Bard, while others have been accepted to selective institutions like Columbia University.

To his knowledge, only two students of the 82 in the program who have been released have been sent back to prison; about 400 prisoners in all have enrolled in the program.

Mr. Hammers, who spent his last days as an inmate organizing Grinnell's program from inside the Iowa prison, says he misses his old job. If he could, he would work with the program full time.

"The biggest thing I've gained can be covered with one word: perspective," he says. "I don't want to be that guy that's sitting there for life, or who's 60 years old and just got a 50-year sentence."

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