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Prison program accredited by college faculty

Through the work of numerous student and faculty volunteers, the Grinnell Prison Program has brought the liberal arts to inmates at two regional prisons.

This past Monday, the faculty voted unanimously to grant credits to incarcerated students at both the Newton Correctional Facility and the Iowa Correctional Facility for Women at Mitchellville. The vote also called for a five-year pilot program to develop a 40-credit Certificate in the Liberal Arts for prisoners in the program.

“The idea is that 40 credits is just below the number that you can transfer to a two-year or four-year college when you’re released,” said Prison Program coordinator Emily Guenther ’07. “This would give incarcerated students a really good base of credits that they could transfer.”

The accredited program builds on the six-year history of Grinnell students and faculty teaching in the Newton Correctional Facility. While the resolution was approved for “qualified students incarcerated at Newton Correctional Facility or [the] Iowa Correctional facility for Women (Mitchellville),” the pilot program will only be enacted at Newton for now.

In order to qualify for the program, prisoners will need a GED or high school diploma. The program will increase the number of courses taught by faculty at the prisons, requiring incarcerated students in the program to take at least four credits from courses in social sciences, humanities, and sciences.

“For a variety of reasons, the population in prisons is very receptive to the liberal arts education. They love to learn, and they’re unbelievably grateful, and most of all they’re just smart,” Eric Ritter ’12, who is the Prison Program Student Coordinator, said. “Just like Grinnell, there’s strengths and weaknesses of every student, but everyone that goes in is really amazed at the overall intelligence and receptiveness to this academic program.”
Student volunteers at Newton and Mitchellville currently teach courses on topics ranging from Theater to Gender and Women’s Studies. Additionally, student volunteers provide tutoring and run the prison library.

“One of the most amazing parts of the program is the freedom of the student teachers to design their own curriculum, to teach what they’re passionate about and teach what they love,” Ritter said.

“When you know something and then be able to rearticulate it and teach it to someone else you kind of learn it in a different way again.” Emma Lawler ’09 said.

Accreditation is the culmination of a year’s efforts by Guenther, as well as many others involved with the program.

“[Guenther] approached me last year, about this time of the year with the hope that it could become possible to put Grinnell courses in Newton Correctional Facility,” said Associate Dean of the College Kathleen Skerrett, who is a faculty advisor with the prison program.

“The first step was to go to the president and get a process from him and the dean so we did that I guess at the beginning of this semester,” Guenther said. “After that they gave us process which included going to curriculum committee, going to executive council and then eventually getting a vote on it from the faculty.”

Accredited college prison programs are not a new concept. According to the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, there were over 350 college-in-prison programs in 1982. In the mid-1990s, the “Tough on Crime” movement led to Clinton sign the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which withdrew federal funding for such programs. All but eight programs were scrapped nationwide.

In recent years, college prison programs have made a comeback. One such program exists at Bard College in New York. The Bard Prison Initiative consists of a “rigorous and diverse liberal arts curriculum, offering both associate and bachelor degrees” in five local prisons.

With the accreditation, Grinnell College will have the same opportunity to extend its educational resources to the incarcerated population.

“I see this as an authentic expression of the mission and tradition of Grinnell College, and that is a distinctive liberal arts column pursued in the context of a commitment to social justice,” said Skerrett. “I think those two things are what make us Grinnell.”

“The actual tangible learning that goes on—for me—inside the classroom is really remarkable,” Ritter said. “The fact that it comes from a group of people who are so overlooked and so forgotten really sort of—to put it in sort of romantic terms—reinforces my faith in people, reinforces my faith in humanity.”

But the people most impacted by the accreditation of the prison program are the inmates who enroll in the classes. “Grinnell has changed my life. I now have positive goals and the ability to achieve them, can appreciate the beauty of the world around me and have learned to cherish the differences in others,” an incarcerated student said.

“Not only have I given my family something to be proud of, strengthening wounded relationships, but I’ve also learned the social skills necessary to relate to them how important they are to me. Grinnell has given me a gift that has positively imbued every aspect of my life. So, yes, I find it difficult not to cry when I discuss the program.”

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