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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

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Prison Program’s popularity spurs hopes for expansion

A new school year has kicked in, both here in Grinnell as well as with Grinnell’s Liberal Arts in Prison Program.

The program, which was founded seven years ago by Emily Guenther ’07, takes place in the Newton Correctional Facility, the Iowa Correctional Facility for Women in Mitchellville and the Central Iowa Juvenile Detention Center in Eldora.

There are two main aspects of the program, one student-run and one accredited. In the former, Grinnell College students can volunteer through a variety of opportunities.

“[Students] can tutor math or design and teach his or her own class at Newton [once a week],” said Emma Morrissey ’15, who is a co-coordinator of the Prison Program.

Past courses have included public speaking, creative writing and other topics that the volunteers are interested in. “They could [also] tutor school equivalency exams material in the women’s prison and in the juvenile home.”

On the other hand, the accredited program aims to provide inmates at Newton with a first year of college education.

“Grinnell professors go into the [facility] and [teach] classes on an array of topics,” said Cody Combs ’15, who is also a co-coordinator for the Prison Program. “Right now we have an intro to sociology course, an intro to economics course, a writing course and a 100-level math course. Through that, they are able to gain Grinnell credit.” The classes meet as regular as do those in Grinnell, so they are held two to three times a week.

There have been several changes for this year’s program. “Until last year, we [were working] with the Iowa Juvenile home in Toledo, and sadly it closed last fall. But luckily we were able to start this new relationship with the Juvenile Home in Eldora,” said Nick Hunter ’15, one of the program’s co-coordinators.

“The one in Toledo was predominantly girls, while the one in Eldora is primarily boys. So far students have had a positive experience volunteering there, [and] we’re excited about sending more tutors this semester,” Combs said.

There has also been an increase in interest in this program, with nearly one hundred students at the informational meeting earlier in the semester. “There have especially been many first-years who are eager to participate, which is great,” Combs said.

However, there are some things that won’t change. “No matter what topic the class is about, it’s going to be completely full,” said Combs. “The [participants] are going to be so excited to [discuss] and they’re going to be very diligent … They’re all so excited [to learn] and so grateful that we’re there.”

The program always remains very popular among the inmates. “We get a large number of applications [for the accredited program],” said Morrissey. “[They] fill up very fast, [within] the day or two … it’s very competitive.”

One of Morrissey’s challenges in teaching is that they often run out of time due to the in-class discussions. “I would [plan] out the class, but the men were so engaged and so talkative about various things that we would actually run out of time and not be able to cover the content that we wanted to cover,” she said.

Considering all of the difficulties that may occur in teaching, getting caught short on time because of in-class discussions seems like a good one to have.

In addition to teaching classes, the Prison Program also publishes a literary magazine called “Concrete Perspectives” every semester. The magazine takes submissions from the men in the accredited programs in Newton and is designed for a wide audience.

“Short stories and poetry have been predominantly featured in the magazine in the past, but [this semester] we’re also open to pieces of nonfiction, creative nonfiction and academic nonfiction,” Morrissey said.

As for this program’s future goals, Combs aims high. “I would like to bring the teaching segment to not only in Newton, [but] to the women’s facility and to the Juvenile Home in Eldora as well,” he said. “We ideally would like to have the same presence in all facilities.”

But for now, the student volunteers are kept busy and full of excitement for the beginning of the new session.

“You see why people get into education in the first place, when you come across these students that are so excited about learning, and you just feed off that,” Combs said.

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