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Letter to the editor: A closer look at the Liberal Arts in Prison Program

Editor’s note: This content deals with an account of violence and sexual assault that may be triggering to some people.

We all know that Grinnell College is a highly selective institution that must turn away more than 70 percent of those who apply. But there is another path to a Grinnell education.

One recipient of Grinnell instruction is serving a life sentence for murder. In 1981, while on probation for burglary and arson, he shot and killed two teenagers, then stuffed their bodies in the trunk of a car left abandoned at a quarry.

Another recent Grinnell student was convicted, along with two other men, in the 1990 kidnapping, beating and sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl. According to authorities, the attackers brutally gang raped the girl while punching her in the face, knocking her head against a gravestone and urinating on her.

These individuals have taken Grinnell courses via the school’s Liberal Arts in Prison Program (LAPP), which offers prisoners an opportunity to earn a year of college credit, with grades recorded on an official Grinnell transcript.

I struggle with this, and not because of some deep-rooted law-and-order mentality. In fact, I write checks to the Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union, and since graduating from Grinnell in 1982, I’ve made regular contributions to my alma mater because I want to help deserving students in their work for social justice.

The key word here is “deserving.” Is it fair, is it truly just, to offer some criminals unique and valuable opportunities that we traditionally and rightly grant according to merit, and which we deny to many deserving applicants because their exemplary behavior is not quite good enough?

Advocates of college-in-prison programs point to the low recidivism rates of inmates who participate, concluding that such education increases the likelihood that released prisoners will find stable employment, thus reducing the chance they’ll return to a life of crime.

On the surface this makes sense.

But upon closer look, it’s clear that the low recidivism rates are more attributable to selection bias than the actual education. By first requesting prisoners who have a genuine interest in college study to apply (self-selection) and then choosing among these the most intelligent, articulate candidates (another tier of selection), Grinnell is assembling a cohort that is much more likely to assimilate back into society—even if they had never taken college classes—than members of the general prison population.

Actually, this fallacy was pointed out in an article about college-in-prison programs in the November 2014 issue of Smithsonian magazine. Still, I venture that no argument will prompt Grinnell to discontinue LAPP, which enlists President Emeritus George Drake to travel the Midwest with former prisoners to promote the program, and which invites these ex-cons to campus each summer for the annual alumni reunion. 

So … some final thoughts.

Our world is full of moral ambiguity, so I suspect that few of us are comfortable with the position that anyone be exclusively and forever defined, their future irrevocably chartered, by a cruel and destructive act. But perhaps our compassion should include another group seldom mentioned in discussions about college-in-prison programs: the victims. During my research on LAPP, I’ve learned that the crimes of these men are rarely disclosed or discussed. And, according to LAPP coordinator Emily Guenther, professors and students who volunteer in LAPP are not encouraged to ask.

After all, as long as the victims remain out of the picture, it’s easy to sidestep the moral questions raised by the trail of pain and grief left behind by LAPP participants.   

For instance, should all criminals, no matter how heinous or despicable their crime, be eligible for consideration in LAPP? A terrorist whose bomb kills some and seriously maims hundreds more? The perpetrator of a vicious hate crime? A child molester?

Or, would it be appropriate to exclude some types of offenders as a forceful expression of our moral condemnation, which one could argue is an essential obligation of any society that values the rights and safety of its citizens?

And what about the concept of restorative justice, which has been increasingly advocated by some proponents of college-in-prison programs? One may fairly ask that if Grinnell believes its instruction to be a transforming experience for those who have committed serious crimes, shouldn’t the same opportunity be freely extended to those who have suffered at the hands of these individuals?

All difficult but legitimate and meaningful questions. As long as Grinnell keeps victims in the shadows, however, it won’t find many answers.

  Randy Gleason ’82 welcomes comments at

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  • S

    Sally CrossonFeb 20, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    Do we have to weigh who is needier, particularly when the needs are being served by an institution with as many resources as Grinnell? The fact seems to me to be that both victims and those who have committed vicious acts against others both need help. Another fact would be that there are a number of prisoners who have themselves been victims. Having spent many evenings with Richard Shelton’s book, ‘Crossing the Yard,’ I was thrilled when I learned of LAPP. There are so many obstacles to employment, self-sufficiency, and success that have been legislated, seemingly to keep some people in prison. Maybe the most valuable benefit in showcasing a Liberal Arts in Prison program is in letting the humanity of imprisoned offenders shine so that those of us who have never been near a prison nor known anyone who has been incarcerated see prisoners and ex-prisoners as valuable and not disposable people.

    I want to say, particularly in light of the last comment in this thread, that what compelled my need to respond to this letter is Mr. Gleason’s compassion for victims. I am so often struck by how much shame there is associated with being the victim of a personal attack; of how in our culture we don’t talk about our disdain for victimhood, but I think that it is evident in the marriage of the words “innocent” and “victim,” and also in the bravery required to stand up and admit to having been a victim, or in the ease with which people see an attractively-dressed woman as inviting trouble. We seem to need to have assurance that a person is innocent (whatever that means) before we can find them deserving of our compassion. I hope that you will tolerate a small digression.

  • R

    Recent AlumFeb 18, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    This opinion is criminally ignorant.

  • R

    Randy GleasonFeb 8, 2015 at 11:52 am

    All good comments. Thank you for participating. I encourage additional comments or contact me at my personal e-mail where we can have a more in-depth discussion than a comments box allows.
    I understand redemption and grace to be qualities conferred only by God. Can people also grant these? Do some individuals have a greater moral standing to do so than others? Can anyone grant redemption and grace to anyone else and for any reason, or are there conditions that must be met? I don’t know…
    My understanding is that although Grinnell works with the Iowa Department of Corrections in facilitating LAPP, Grinnell has the final decision on student selection because it is better qualified to determine which applicants are most likely to succeed in the program.

  • M

    Mary BroonerFeb 5, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    Your argument reduced to the basics seems to be Grinnell students are helping the undeserving in the LAPP; if that is likely to continue, at least include the victims. For myself, I cannot assume the prisoners are not victims themselves, but more fundamentally I believe in redemption and grace – beliefs that inform justice for me. I also do not assume that the LAPP participants ignore their particular victims – in fact I have heard graduates talk about re-establishing with their families. And I agree with Kirpal’s comment that the issues you raise are in some ways better directed to Iowa Corrections which has a huge role in deciding who among their prison population can participate in LAPP.

  • W

    William IngramFeb 2, 2015 at 12:01 pm

    The doctor analogy is good, but let’s replace “get better” with “heal”. A focus on healing will allow victims to be included in the conversation, which is part of Randy Gleason’s argument, and which I find compelling.

  • L

    Leonya IvanovJan 30, 2015 at 10:05 am

    Just like a doctor, the college should not be in business of pre-selecting people it considers “good”. It should be in business of helping people get better.