By Lauren Rearick
On Wednesday, May 22, 10 inmates at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, a state prison for men, became the first graduates of the Washington University Prison Education Project.
Introduced earlier this year, the project provided inmates of the Missouri-based Correctional Center with the chance to study college-level courses, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. Courses in the spring semester included Chinese Civilization, Introduction to Macroeconomics, and Greek Mythology. In order to receive a diploma, students had to complete 60 hours of credits.
Robert Henke, a professor and director of the program told the Post-Dispatch about the unique nature of the offerings: “We’ve created this liberal arts environment in the middle of a prison,” he said. “You get your books and it’s Homer’s Odyssey and you start talking about the text. You’re the professor and they’re not criminals, they’re not inmates, they’re college students.”
Thanks to funding from Washington University, classes are offered free of charge to interested inmates. In order to enroll, potential students must write a personal essay, take a test, and have a high school diploma or a degree equivalent. (A recent survey found that 30 percent of incarcerated adults had not completed a high school education; the school-to-prison pipeline contributes to these numbers.) The Post-Dispatch reports that 30 interested students will take part in the program’s summer session. Employees of the prison are also welcome to take the classes.
Graduating student Kareem Martin told the Post-Dispatch that enrolling had “awakened something in me that needed to be awakened.” His classmate and one of the day’s graduation speakers, Danien Cobb, said that because of the program, he is “freed to dream.” Cobb shared his post-graduation plans with the Post-Dispatch, detailing a future that includes a completion of his associate’s degree.
The Washington University Prison Education Project is one of 11 participating colleges in the Bard Prison Initiative. Through the program, Bard College in New York City partners with universities and prisons throughout the United States to offer “rigorous” courses to incarcerated people.
Such work is part of a growing trend of prison education programs aimed to help incarcerated people better prepare themselves for the future. Higher educational institutions in locations across the country — including New York, Connecticut, and Maryland — are among those partnering with prisons in order to provide “life-changing” educational opportunities for inmates.
In a 2019 report from the Vera Institute of Justice, it was found that inmates who enroll in a college program are more likely to find future employment upon completion of a prison sentence. However, as noted by NPR, a ban on providing federal Pell Grants to inmates was enacted in 1994. Pell Grants provide financial assistance for income-eligible students, but because of the ban, an estimated 463,000 inmates are unable to afford college-level classes that would be available to them during their time in prison.
The Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality estimated that if the ban on providing Pell Grants to incarcerated inmates was lifted, employment rates among formerly-incarcerated people would increase by 10 percent.
Congress is currently considering a bill that would possibly reverse this ban on providing Pell Grants to inmates, NPR reports.