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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Students find themselves in Prison Program

In 2013, fifteen inmates will have completed their first year as Grinnell College students without ever leaving prison. This summer, the Prison Program will be admitting these men to the first year college program at Newton Correctional Facility. The inmates will take two accredited courses per semester, and at the end of two years, they will have 32 credits from Grinnell, which is equivalent to one year at the College.

According to Program Coordinator Emily Guenther ’07, an accredited course is exactly the same as a class that is taught on campus.

“This semester, we had Literary Analysis, Environmental History and College Writing 101–all of those courses follow the exact curriculum on campus. It’s the same number of hours, same homework, same professors, and same standards,” she said. “They carry Grinnell College credit. The prisoners in the courses are earning credit that would appear on a transcript from Grinnell.”

But since the accredited courses can come off as too intensive for some inmates and are currently quite limited in their offerings, over 75 students are currently involved with teaching other classes through the Prison Program.

“Many of the prisoners have never been to college and have been disappointed their whole lives in terms of education,” Guenther said. “The student courses are opportunities for growth and learning that test out what it feels like to be in a liberal arts course, doing readings and participating in discussions.”

Guenther finds that volunteers from the College are able to combine a passion for the subject that they teach with a Grinnellian’s propensity for social justice.

“These students at the prison are eager, engaged, smart and willing to work. But a lot of them have come from backgrounds where they’ve had incredibly little educational opportunity,” Guenther said. “Simply by doing what we already do on campus, which is liberal arts coursework, in the prison, we can fulfill both goals of excellent academics and social justice.”

Student teachers design their own curriculum according to their own interests and experiences. Tequilla Manning ’11 teaches Latin American Studies, based loosely off the classes she has taken at the College.

“We covered historical content in the first half of the semester,” said Manning. “Now we’re doing some concept mapping and applying what they learned about history to modern societies in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, just because I studied abroad in those countries and know more about them. For example, I assigned them an article about race in Latin America. How does that apply to what’s going on in Costa Rica and Nicaragua right now?”

While students bring their own experiences into class, Sam Mulopulos ’14, who teaches Earth Systems Science, has found that the prisoners’ backgrounds expand his own perspective and enrich the classroom experience.

“A lot of these guys come from agricultural backgrounds, which I had covered in my tutorial, but these guys offered some other perspectives,” Mulopulos said. “One of the guys had a background in asbestos removal, which was perfect since we covered asbestos poisoning.”

Abby Johnson ’13, who currently teaches Introduction to Psychology, encourages students who may be afraid to participate in the Program to seriously consider getting involved.

“Emily [Guenther] jokes that in some respects, your prisoners will be the best bodyguards you’ll ever have, because they’re so invested in learning,” said Johnson. “The people who would cause trouble aren’t allowed to take those classes, so safety is never a problem. These students choose to be there and appreciate you being there.”

The Prison Program has expanded from its inception as four students who had been interested in teaching at the prison to one of the most popular community service projects at Grinnell.

“I think a lot of Grinnellians want both to have a rigorous academic experience and to be socially committed,” Guenther said. “This program is a unique opportunity for us as a college to fulfill both things at once. … I think that’s why the program continues to grow and why I have to do so little recruiting. It’s so clearly embedded in Grinnell’s mission.”

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