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Teaching in prison—Wash U’s off-campus education program

Missouri Eastern Correctional Center
File photo | Katelyn Mae Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio

The question of quality of life for imprisoned persons is a difficult one.

What kind of opportunities do prisoners deserve? And if imprisonment merits any kind of effort to improve quality of life, which initiatives are most important? Most helpful? Most appropriate?

A Washington University program offering classes to inmates at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific, Mo. indicates that opportunities for education may fit the bill. Prisoners can receive credit towards a degree by taking classes that students at the University’s main campus might—in history, philosophy, and literature—from experts in those fields.

Robert Henke, professor of drama and comparative literature, has found that the students he teaches at the Correctional Center are less prepared than traditional college students but no less serious about achieving their degree. “The incarcerated students have a real passion and a real desire to succeed, and there’s something really at stake for them in these courses.”

In some ways, said history professor Margaret Garb, the incarcerated students also have more to say than the typical 18-year-old freshman. “They’re a little bit older, they’ve had a lot more life experience…they raise some interesting and complicated questions about their work.”

The connections drawn between life experience and literature were especially poignant in a class Henke taught last year. “We started with the Odyssey, which was wonderful,” Henke said. “[Odysseus] calls himself, at one point, ‘nobody.’ And the men did really understand what it’s like to be bereft.”

Garb said she had a similar experience when inmates read a slave narrative by Harriet Jacobs. “What was interesting to me was that they also related to the struggle of poor whites in the South, and raised a lot of questions about why slaves and poor whites didn’t find common cause,” she said. “And so it got to these questions about the intersections of race and class, and hierarchies in society…they asked a lot of really sharp and interesting questions.”

This school year the list of courses will expand, covering not only history and literature but genetics, physics, and psychology.

In the first go-round of the program last year, prisoners had to fill out a paper application asking about their interest in the program in order to qualify. This time around, applicants were decided by interviews; 30 participants were selected.

Garb and Henke agreed that the prisoners are exceptionally motivated to learn, discuss, and debate. “It really does change the culture of prison,” Henke said. “Conversations in prison—and in other places as well—can be pretty deadening. But I think [the program] has in a small way changed the culture.” Changed it enough, anyway, that some prisoners reported talking about 16th century French philosophy in the weight room.

A welcome change in the daily routine is of course welcome, Garb agreed; but prisoners also want to become a part of the educational and intellectual community, during and following their incarceration. “And I think they really enjoy the fact that someone takes seriously their opinions.”

Some argue that providing education for incarcerated individuals reduces recidivism rates and eases re-entry into civilian life. The Obama administration recently began a pilot program under that assumption, offering prisoners access to federal Pell Grants. The program facilitates inmates’ admittance and attendance to college-level classes while imprisoned.

Several studies, including one by the Rand Corporation, show a deep decrease in recidivism rates with the attendance of even one college course in prison—from about 50 percent, Garb said, to less than 20.

Even so, critics argue that using government funds to educate people who have broken the law is a misapplication of resources and a reward for criminals. When the cost of incarceration per person per year is already in the tens of thousands, what is the good of spending more?

As it turns out, offering educational programs in prisons just might save taxpayers money. Reduced recidivism rates mean fewer occupied cells, and fewer prisoners mean lowered costs. “The Rand study found that for every dollar spent on prison education, taxpayers save four to five dollars,” Garb said. “Prison education is much cheaper than keeping people in prison.”

That much, however, depends on what happens to the imprisoned students after they are released—if they find employment, if they continue their education, if they resettle well into the community. The program has not been running long enough for its administrators to glean data about its effectiveness, but one student, at least, has enrolled in Wash U’s University College to continue working towards a degree.

Though Garb and Henke are not opposed to federal funding of initiatives like theirs, they pointed out that the Washington University courses are not supported by Pell Grants or anything like them. Support for their program is coming from Bard College’s Prison Initiative, which will help fund instructors’ stipends and supplies for the program’s initial three years.

Funding concerns aside, Garb said, “the point is that college in prison makes our community safer and stronger.”

St. Louis Public Radio’s Dale Singer first examined the program at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in April. Read and listen to his conversations with student inmates, participating professors, and program administrators here.

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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