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WVU Higher Education in Prison Initiative selected for Laughing Gull Foundation Award

The WVU Higher Education in Prison Initiative has been awarded three years of grant funding from the Laughing Gull Foundation. This funding will support credit-bearing classes in a maximum-security Pennsylvania state prison. 

The $65,000 in funds, per year, for the three-year term of the grant, will be used for instructional costs, graduate assistantships, teacher training, supplies and tuition. 

WVU will partner with Waynesburg University to offer the classes. The first cohort of students is expected to begin coursework in the Fall of 2022. Upon completion of the 60-credit curriculum, students will earn an Associate of Arts degree from Waynesburg. 

Higher education in prison programs create space for intellectual and personal growth and extend the benefits of college to one of the most under-resourced populations. Classes often generate direction, hope, and purpose for students. 

“Every step of the process was an opportunity to think through how we can build an equitable and sustainable education program,” said Katy Ryan, WVU English professor and co-writer of the proposal. “We're so thankful to Laughing Gull for inviting our application and to the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences and WVU Provost's Office for their support. Also, to the English department that has done so much over the years to ensure people in prison have access to books and education.”

WVU was invited to submit a proposal to the Laughing Gull Foundation because of its long partnership with the Appalachian Prison Book Project. A local nonprofit, APBP provides free books to people imprisoned in six states, creates prison book clubs, and has paid tuition costs for WVU classes in prison.

“Securing this multi-year funding validates the ongoing work we have been doing to better extend higher education opportunities to this often overlooked population,” Rayna Momen, sociology doctoral candidate and co-writer of the proposal, said. “We are grateful to the various stakeholders for believing in our vision.” 

The WVU HEPI builds on almost two decades of WVU Inside-Out Prison Exchange classes, a program bringing on-campus students and incarcerated students together to take a course inside prison. Ryan said the idea for the degree program came from a student taking her English class in prison. 

“The purpose of HEPI is not rehabilitation but transformation. We believe education is essential for that process to have any real meaning.” Darrin Lester, a member of the HEPI Advisory Council, said. “As someone who has spent close to 30 years in and out of prison, I can attest that we do better when we know better. That better can only be realized through critical and analytical thought. It helps us to see the world around us through a different perspective. More importantly it allows us to see ourselves and our potential in a new light. I can’t becomes, I can.”

This initiative will lead to a more diverse and inclusive Mountaineer community, will strengthen the University’s commitment to racial justice, and will generate high-impact teaching and research. 

For more information on WVU HEPI including ways to support the Initiative, contact Katy Ryan, Director, at or Rayna Momen, Program Coordinator, at

The grant was made through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University.