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Liberal Arts in Prison Program expands to include women’s prison

Concrete Perspectives’ 2020 cover. By Zainab Thompson.

The Liberal Arts in Prison Program (LAPP) has expanded to include the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW), now offering incarcerated women the opportunity for a liberal arts education.

Emily Guenther `07 has served as the Director of the LAPP since she graduated from Grinnell College. While a student, Guenther worked as a volunteer in the program, which she said was a formative experience throughout her college career. Since she began working for the LAPP, Guenther has successfully transformed it into a successful college program.

To be in the prison, where I see the level of excitement from our students is so high, it’s just so powerful -Molly Campe `96, Prison Program Coordinator

“I saw the level of dedication and talent and curiosity, and I felt like they [incarcerated students] should have access to college. That’s why I decided to push to make it a college program,” said Guenther.

The LAPP experienced many challenges to the COVID pandemic and only recently returned to inperson classes. “I’m a big proponent of in-person learning in general,” said Guenther. “And I think it’s especially important in prisons, because people in prisons are really isolated.”

Molly Campe `96, Prison Program Coordinator, only recently started work at the LAPP but has already witnessed the enthusiasm of the incarcerated students. “To be in the prison, where I see the level of excitement from our students is so high, it’s just so powerful,” Campe said.

The ICIW is in Mitchellville, which is only ten miles away from the Newton Correctional Facility, where the LAPP has operated for its duration. Guenther said that the partnership made sense because of this location and her desire for a more equitable program.

The LAPP partners with the Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) to transfer Grinnell classes towards an Associate Degree of Arts.

With the help of funding from the Department of Alumni Relations, Guenther and Campe were able to begin a three-year partnership with the ICIW. Classes this semester have already begun.

Professor Mark Laver, music, has been teaching a jazz traditions course at Mitchellville since the beginning of the semester. He said that both for Guenther and himself, it is important to ensure that the quality of education for incarcerated students is the same as it is for those on campus.

The ability to help make someone’s creative vision into a tangible thing that they can hold and look at and show to people is just really special. Even more so for incarcerated populations -Zainab Thompson `22

“There shouldn’t really be any difference in the student experience in the classroom, between what happens in the prisons and what happens on campus,” said Laver. “My aim is to empower students to have a degree of autonomy to explore material through different modes of engagement.”

Laver has assigned multiple research projects to students at Mitchellville. To overcome the challenge of the severely limited resources in the prison, the LAPP hires students who conduct research on campus to then give materials to the incarcerated students.

According to Guenther and Campe, student involvement is a key facet to the functioning of the LAPP. “We want to expose people in the prison to other passionate people,” said Guenther.

Zainab Thompson `22 has worked for the LAPP since her first year on campus. She serves as the editor of Concrete Perspectives, a publication that pairs writing from incarcerated students with visual artists on campus.

“The ability to help make someone’s creative vision into a tangible thing that they can hold and look at and show to people is just really special. Even more so for incarcerated populations,” said Thompson.

For Thompson, Concrete Perspectives is “a cool way for incarcerated creatives to still feel creative.”

“I’m getting a piece of their life with the stigma of whatever landed them in prison removed,” said Thompson.

As the LAPP and ICIW partnership continues to grow, Guenther and Campe hope to also grow the program itself, hopefully with more student workers and professors.

Both Laver and Thompson said that working with the LAPP has been incredibly rewarding.

“It’s like a look into people that I wouldn’t otherwise get to interact with,” said Thompson.

“It’s been one of the most rewarding teaching experiences of my career,” said Laver. “It’s just like an enriching and illuminating experience in all, in all different ways. The resilience that so many of them [incarcerated students] bring in the face of these enormous obstacles is really extraordinary. I would encourage anybody who has had an inkling to do it to follow up on that.”

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About the Contributor
Allison Moore
Allison Moore, Staff Writer
Allison is a fourth-year gender, women's, and sexuality studies major from Granville, Ohio. In her spare time, she can be found crafting, cooking, and cuddling with her kitten, Koda. If you think her mini crossword is too hard, then too bad.
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