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Education

Wash U To Offer College Degree Program At Missouri Women’s Prison In Vandalia

A stack of Washington University diplomas awaits recipients at the Prison Education Project commencement in 2019 at the Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific, Missouri.
File photo / Joe Angeles
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Washington University
A stack of Washington University diplomas awaits recipients at the Prison Education Project commencement in 2019 at the Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific, Missouri.

Beginning this fall, incarcerated women in Missouri will have the opportunity to work towards earning a degree from Washington University.

Wash U. announced this week that its Prison Education Project won a $980,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to start its first women’s prison education program.

People incarcerated at the Women’s Eastern Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri can begin taking classes in August. It will be the first time an on-site college program exists at the prison. The grant also provides funding for technology to host the classes virtually as well as expanding reentry programs at the prison.

The women’s prison in Vandalia currently offers robust vocational training, but no college-level instruction on site, according to Missouri Department of Corrections Reentry Manager Ken Chapman.

“If it gives our clients a chance to be successful, then we've got to do everything in our power to make it happen,” he said.

Incarcerated people who take even one college course drastically reduce their chances of returning to prison.

“Ninety-five percent of people who are in prison are going to be getting out,” said Barbara Baumgartner, who helped Wash U secure the funding and teaches gender and sexuality studies at the school. “I think it is absolutely essential to offer as much higher education in prison as we can offer.”

Wash U started the Prison Education Project in 2014 at the Eastern Correctional Center, a men’s prison in Pacific about 30 miles southwest from its campus in St. Louis and University City. The university currently offers associate and bachelor’s degree programs at the men’s prison.

Washington University graduates from Missouri's Eastern Correctional Center listen to a speech at their commencement ceremony in 2019. Professor and one of the Prison Education Project founders, Robert Henke says education creates a "ripple effect" in incarcerated people's lives, impacting their families and communities.
Joe Angeles
Washington University graduates from Missouri's Eastern Correctional Center listen to a speech at their commencement ceremony in 2019. Professor and one of the Prison Education Project founders, Robert Henke says education creates a "ripple effect" in incarcerated people's lives, impacting their families and communities.

As the coronavirus pandemic prompted many schools to pivot to virtual classes and prisons to shut out visitors over the past year, the grant program challenged applicants to reimagine the future of higher education in prisons.

The current online learning system the Missouri Department of Corrections uses is clunky and limited in potential, educators say. That’s why Wash U, LaunchCode and five incarcerated coders are developing a new learning management system, similar to Canva or Blackboard but without internet access. They aim to finish the project within the next two years, before the grant period ends.

The infusion of grant money made it possible for Wash U to establish the women’s program in Vandalia.

The rural town is an hour and a half northwest of Wash U’s campus, which makes it difficult for instructors to teach weekly classes in person. The project plans to use the new technology to provide a mix of virtual and in-person learning.

Even if they could do fully virtual classes, Baumgartner says the in-person portion of the courses is important.

Washington University is expanding to the Women's Eastern Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri which is nearly 100 miles from the school's main campus.
Kayla Drake
Washington University is expanding to the Women's Eastern Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri which is nearly 100 miles from the school's main campus.

“Having robust discussions in a classroom is so different than spending time alone answering questions online,” she said, adding “People who are in prison have been so amazingly isolated for the last 15 months.”

The project aims to enroll up to 20 students in its first class at the women’s prison this fall. Later, it will progress to offering associates and bachelors programs.

For professors, the benefits of the program vastly outweigh costs of burning through a tank of gas.

“This is just an energizing teaching experience,” said Robert Henke, Wash U drama professor and one of the Prison Education Project’s founders. “There's something at stake with these learners. And I mean, it really inspires you. You're putting your money where your mouth is with the liberal arts.”

Henke said a liberal arts education cultivates critical thinking that will lead his incarcerated students to more meaningful jobs once they leave prison.

Eventually, Wash U and LaunchCode hope to put the new learning management system on open source, so other prisons can use the technology too. That would open education access to rural prisons, Henke said, because often the prisons close to cities have the best educational resources.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

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