Letter to the editor: Liberal Arts in Prison answers questions

The letter to the editor, “A closer look at the Liberal Arts in Prison Program,” published in the Jan. 22 issue of The S&B, is the latest in a series of letters written by Randy Gleason ’82 to various offices at Grinnell College regarding the Liberal Arts in Prison Program (LAPP). Mr. Gleason raises questions that have occurred to many who know about or participate in the LAPP—questions that deserve some direct and accurate answers.

First, I would like to address a misleading claim. Mr. Gleason, citing an article in Smithsonian Magazine, suggests that the low recidivism rates of participants in college-in-prison programs are more attributable to selection bias than the effects of education. In fact, the RAND Corporation reports that the Smithsonian article references came to the opposite conclusion. It clearly and intentionally sorted between studies that controlled for selection bias and those that did not.

The RAND report found that, even according to the most rigorous studies, those who participated in education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who did not, and that “this suggests that selection bias is not driving our findings” (page 14 of “How Effective Is Correctional Education, and Where Do We Go from Here?: The Results of a Comprehensive Examination” by the RAND Corporation, 2014. (http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR564.html).

Second, I will describe some essential differences between studying on campus and in prison. The men in LAPP are not admitted as degree-seeking students at Grinnell College. Just as college employees, high school students and retirees take courses for credit at Grinnell, participants in our program do not gain admission to the College.

However, to participate in our First Year of College Program, men at the Newton Correctional Facility undergo a highly selective process that consists of an essay and interview, which are reviewed and conducted by a committee of faculty. We freely acknowledge that most of these men, many of whom dropped out of school at an early age, would not be admitted through a traditional admissions process. Their success in the rigorous Grinnell courses they take is improbable, yet most do succeed.

The men in our program—who do not have access to the extracurricular activities, internships, study abroad experiences and performances that Grinnell students enjoy—create their college experience entirely in the classroom and through their support of one another, despite living in an environment that is not at all conducive to learning. After release, they will have enormous difficulty finding jobs, furthering their education and accessing services because of the lifelong record of their felony convictions.

Finally, I will offer my personal reflections about restorative justice and education, especially for those who participate in our program and must think often about these topics. The LAPP began as part of a restorative justice program, but soon switched its focus from restorative justice to education because we did not believe ourselves equipped to offer victim assistance, mediation and restitution—the worthy and complex goals of restorative justice. I am glad that the Peace and Conflict Studies Program offers periodic classes about restorative justice on campus, which are popular with our student volunteers. Many community and government agencies offer restorative justice services in Iowa. These programs are overseen by passionate professionals who have been working on behalf of victims for decades and who are specifically trained to thoughtfully address the complexities of victimization and trauma.

Grinnell College is unequipped to perform the work of restorative justice, but well equipped to educate. The LAPP is an intensely valuable experience for the over 50 students and professors who participate every semester. The program rededicates everyone involved to liberal arts learning. A liberal arts education is, at its best, a challenging, thorough and thrilling examination of the world. It is a frequently frustrating experience that fosters the search for knowledge, defense of evidence and reconsideration of beliefs.

Our students in prison undergo this kind of exploration. It does not let them off easy. They consistently say their education makes them reexamine their lives. Some people in prison, including people we work with, have caused terrible harm (though most have not committed violent crimes). Our current system of mass incarceration also causes tremendous harm. These facts are complicated and cannot be resolved easily. I hold them both in mind as I work.

—Emily Guenther

Prison Program Coordinator