University Prison Education Programs

Image Credit: Kate Wong, The Daily Trojan

The power of knowledge and education can often be underestimated. However, prison education programs in colleges nationwide are demonstrating the effect higher education can have on a person’s outcomes in life, especially for inmates. These programs are seeking to invest in our society’s future by reducing their students’ likelihood of reoffending by offering college courses and the possibility of a earning a degree while incarcerated. Studies have shown that participation in higher education while in prison reduces the risk of re-incarceration by 46%, and that risk is even further reduced when more education is obtained.

These programs are filling the gap left in the wake of the 1990s “tough on crime” policy that effectively ended higher education in prisons by refusing Pell Grants to incarcerated students, shutting down most of the 350 existing programs. While the benefit for inmates seems clear, participating college students benefit from leadership and volunteer opportunities as well as the chance to learn and gain life experience.

We at NerdScholar wanted to recognize the outstanding prison education programs that are making a difference in society. These programs fall into the following categories:

    • General education Programs
    • Associate Degree-Earning Programs
    • Bachelors Degree-Earning Programs

General Education Programs

Hobart and William Smith Colleges

Started by Gideon Porter ’12, the HWS Second Chances Program officially began teaching in the spring of 2012 at Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, New York. Originally only a student organization, the effort received support and encouragement from volunteer faculty, most notably Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science John Vaughn and Professor of English Laurence Erussard.

The program is highly selective, accepting only 18 students into each class and cultivates interaction between HWS students and those at Five Points Correctional Facility. To that end, Professor Erussard teaches 2 sections of her class, one at the Colleges and one at the prison, encouraging written discussion of the material between the two groups of students through responses to lecture and readings.

Wesleyan University

The Center for Prison Education at Wesleyan University enrolled its first cohort of 18 inmates at Cheshire Correctional Institution in 2009 as a 2-year pilot program. The project was spearheaded by Russell Perkins ’09 and Alexis Sturdy ’10 who had been volunteering and teaching seminars at Cheshire since their freshman years.

The CPE was re-approved by an overwhelming faculty vote in the spring of 2011 and has plans for further growth. Additionally, the program is a member of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison at Bard College. Through an entrance exam the program selects 18 inmates for each new cohort from Cheshire and MacDougall prisons. In January 2013 the program opened a second campus at York Correctional Institution, the only state prison for women in Connecticut. The CPE engages Wesleyan students as writing tutors, teaching assistants and policy and research interns.

Associates Degree-Earning Programs

Cornell University

The Prison Education Program at Cornell University was started as a volunteer group of faculty led by Professor Pete Wetherbee in the mid-90s. In 1999 Cornell enabled the classes to be taken for college credit. Now inmates at the Auburn and Cayuga Correctional Facilities can sit an exam for entrance into the program, which offers 12 courses a semester that work towards an associate’s degree from Cayuga Community College.

Classes are taught by volunteer faculty and grad students with a group of 40 undergraduate tutors and teaching assistants helping out in the classroom. The program also runs a speaker series featuring prominent Cornell faculty and administrators with topics ranging from “The Human History of Slave Ships” to  “An Afternoon of Rhythm & Word.”

Patten University

The Prison University Project based at San Quentin State Prison allows inmates to earn an associates degree from Patten University in Oakland, CA. The program was started in 1996 by a professor at UC Davis in cooperation with Patten University and the Education Department at San Quentin. PUP offers 20 classes a semester, 3 semesters a year. Classes are available to all inmates classified as “general population” and are taught by over 100 volunteer professors and grad students from Stanford University, UC Berkley, UC Davis, San Francisco State University and other local universities. This past semester courses included a Stanford-San Quentin workshop on Democracy and Incarceration.

Bachelors Degree-Earning Programs

Bard College

Started as a student volunteer organization in 1999, the Bard Prison Initiative at Bard College has grown into one of the leading prison education programs in the country.

While it began as a small group of students who volunteered to tutor prison inmates, the program now offers 50 courses each semester that allow the incarcerated students to work towards earning liberal arts degrees from Bard College. Issuing its first degrees in 2005, BPI has now granted nearly 250 degrees to inmates in five prisons across New York. The Bard Prison Initiative now fosters similar programs in other schools nationwide through the creation of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison.

Boston University

Started in 1972 by Boston University Professor Elizabeth Barker, the BU Prison Education Program was one of few to survive the devastating funding cutbacks of the 90s. Over the years it has provided over 600 courses that count toward Bachelor of Liberal Studies in Interdisciplinary Studies degrees from the University.

In 2006 BU augmented their program with the introduction of the Prep Program, which prepares prospective students for the rigorous academic standards of Boston University.  Since 2005 the BU prison education program has also accepted DANTES (Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Educational Support) credits towards graduation. DANTES allows active-duty service personnel to continue their education through self-study and independent research. Through the BU prison education program, the DANTES program is also available to incarcerated students.