Skip to main content

Education in Prison Initiative Improves Access and Equity in Appalachia

It’s 7:00 a.m. and WVU graduate student Destinee Harper is dressing carefully for a day of teaching. Nothing too tight or see through, no open-toed shoes, no jacket, no cardigan or shirt with pockets. She wants to make sure she is allowed in the classroom. “I think that was a big part of that first week, was [sic] making sure that we were abiding by these rules, that they would let us in and that they wouldn't have a reason to say, no, you can't come in and learn in this space.”  

Harper looks forward to the weekly discussion of plays such as Lorraine Hansbury’s classic A Raisin in the Sun and Pittsburgh native August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. But she can’t bring much to class, except her ideas. “No paper, no pencils, no books..” There will be no computers, but there will be constant humming from vending machines, people walking in and out, and key rings jangling like nerves. And yet the students and teachers are laser focused. “It’s this space where everything is purely educational. We don’t know anything about each other. We just come into this space ready to learn together. And I think that is a very, very rare thing,” Harper says with relish.   

Harper is a graduate teaching assistant, a GTA, for the inaugural course of WVU’s Higher Education in Prison Initiative. The English course in drama is the first of a 60-credit associate degree program offered to a group of incarcerated men in SCI Greene, a maximum security state prison in Pennsylvania. It is also an Inside-Out class, meaning that students from WVU carpool to the prison and take the class for credit along with the incarcerated students. Harper picks up one of the WVU students each Wednesday morning, and together they make the thirty minute drive from Morgantown.

Female with short hair sitting in a cafe with a book and laptop
“It’s this space where everything is purely educational. We don’t know anything about each other. We just come into this space ready to learn together. And I think that is a very, very rare thing.”
– Destinee Harper

In the prison lobby, they meet the other on-campus WVU students–eight undergraduates, three graduate student-mentors, two GTAs, and WVU English Professor Katy Ryan, who teaches the course and directs WVU’s HEPI. Together they navigate the prison’s layers of security and make their way to the visiting room, which also serves as the classroom. The fourteen inside students come in next, and all participants settle into the circle of chairs that cordons off a space for learning amidst the noise and movement.

Associate Degree Program Launches With First Cohort of Students

The program has been a longtime goal of Ryan’s, who can attest to the intensive effort required to establish a higher education in prison program, “After many years of planning, we are so excited to launch the associate degree program with the first cohort of students. They have fantastic ideas about how to ensure the program has broad impact, both inside the prison and beyond.” Students have developed group projects that would enhance educational programming at the prison, Ryan reports, including plans to connect the higher education program to the prison’s vocational education program, developing an inside advisory council to serve as a counterpart to WVU HEPI’s outside advisory council, creating a podcast, spearheading a mentoring program, working on legislation, and holding workshops on mental health and trauma. 

Crucially, the prison administration at SCI Greene welcomed the program and agreed to provide ongoing logistical support. At WVU, Jim Nolan, who is Professor of Sociology as well as an experienced Inside-Out instructor, and Rayna Momen, a recent PhD graduate and HEPI Program Coordinator, have played key roles in helping Ryan start the program. In all, a network of institutions and people has come together to launch WVU HEPI, which has secured a grant for several years of funding from the Laughing Gull Foundation.

Benefits Beyond Reducing Recidivism

With such productive outcomes, it is not surprising that providing higher education to incarcerated people reduces violence in prisons and recidivism rates for people released from prison. A recent report from the RAND Corporation, a public policy research group, found that individuals who participated in education programs while in prison had a 43% lower chance of recidivism than those who did not. Furthermore, those who participated in correctional education programs had a 13% higher chance of finding employment upon release. The report concludes that prison education programs are a cost effective means of reducing recidivism and reducing costs of reincarceration. 

These statistics have helped generate support for prison education programs, yet Ryan sees the benefits far exceeding the focus on recidivism rates. “As an educator, I see students as students. We are focused on academic study and the process of learning. I’ve had so many exceptional students with life and other extreme sentences who use their education to tutor and mentor others, to help their families, and to live the fullest life they can. This is a meaningful educational outcome that won’t ever be measured by recidivism rates.” 

Renaldo Hudson is one of those who inspired Ryan’s work. While incarcerated in Illinois for 37 years, including 13 on death row, Hudson taught himself to read and write, received his GED and associate degree, and eventually completed a bachelor’s degree in divinity. He also served as assistant chaplain, established the newspaper Statesville Speaks, and founded Building Block, a peer mentoring program designed to change the culture and transform the lives of men at Illinois’ Danville Correctional Center. 

Ryan met Hudson in the mid-1990s through her father, Bill Ryan, who became a prison activist after reading Sister Helen Prejean’s book Dead Man Walking. “He started a mentoring program between men on death row in Illinois and young people in Chicago,” explains Ryan. “I don't think I would have taught my first class on prison history and literature if I had not met Renaldo and spent time going inside as a visitor. The extreme separation imposed by prisons, their visceral horror, settled into my bones.”

Released in 2020 when his sentence was commuted by Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, Hudson now serves as Education Director for the Illinois Prison Project. Ryan invited Hudson to visit HEPI’s Inside/Out class in October. He also spoke at WVU in support of prison education programs. “When people are educated, they make better decisions,” he said, explaining how such programs increase safety within and beyond prison walls. Hudson also credited prison education programs for the contributions he and other formerly incarcerated colleagues are now making, “My peers and I are directors of education because we had access to higher education.” 

As the IPP education director, Hudson raises awareness about what he calls “perpetual punishment,” the legal restrictions that still bind individuals who have completed terms of incarceration, including in housing, employment, education, and even, as Hudson discovered, adopting a dog. As Ryan notes, “If we want to reduce recidivism, we need to dismantle the numerous barriers people face when they are released.”

Group of students and professors with Ronaldo, all standing in front of floor to ceiling bookcases.

The students in WVU HEPI’s first cohort have already begun the sort of transformation Ryan says comes with access to higher education. Boymah* describes how that transformation starts with self-image, “For those few hours in class, I didn’t see myself as a convicted felon in a prison visiting room. I was a WVU student in a classroom with twenty-nine of my classmates, learning.” With a newfound sense of self-worth, students can set goals and act with purpose. As Sean writes, “If I finish this course in its entirety and receive an associate’s degree it would be the first time I have ever finished anything I have started. This class, and this entire course, are the first meaningful endeavor that I have taken on as a sober adult.”

And the transformation extends beyond the self by opening students to a greater sense of community and possibility for cooperation. As Sean writes, “One of the more surprising aspects of this class is the esprit de corps between the inside students. The sense of camaraderie has helped us become open and willing to help each other out in this endeavor. I don’t know if we’re aware of it or not, but we all seem to be on a mission of improvement of the self and by proxy an improvement of the opportunities and culture inside these walls.” Brian also finds that self-improvement leads to helping others, writing, “Since this class has started, I’ve begun to take a different approach in my daily life. I now use critical thinking with purpose to better myself and help others when the opportunity presents itself.” 

Phil echoes the idea that educational access leads to greater connection and community. “Moving forward, I will always be open minded and willing to work with people to get something done or learn things of benefit,” he writes. But his further comments show how humanistic inquiry can increase empathy toward others and thus extend the benefits of prison education even beyond the prison walls. He writes that his favorite play has been Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. “It has opened my eyes up to the mistreatment and struggles women within my culture endure, and the self-destructive influences us men within that culture propagate that harm our women.” Franko also singles out for colored girls as eye opening. “Being a white male with limited life experience, it exposed me to a side of art that I was not aware of, it put me in touch with the feminine side.”

Academically Rigorous and Dramatically Humanizing

Though most of the classes making up the associate degree curriculum will not be Inside-Out classes, the students from SCI Greene and WVU extoll the benefits of learning alongside each other in the first class of the new degree program. 

Inside students emphasize how this arrangement has helped restore their sense of human dignity. Rudy, for example, writes, “The thing that surprised me the most about taking this class is how we all seem to view one another (as people). Not as inmates and individuals from a college, but human beings that all want to learn and grow with each other. I hope programs that can bring the outside community and the prison community together continue to be supported. The only true way forward in this maze of ‘rehabilitation’ is for both sides to understand each other. The only way to understand each other is to interact, you can’t interact if the doors to the prison and your heart are closed.”

How do you demonstrate an open heart in a drama class that incorporates performance? Carrie Miller, one of the outside students and a third year WVU Law student, describes a surprise performance by the inside students she found particularly touching. “They got together and they wrote a rap, but the rap itself included the name of every person in the class, so they somehow incorporated a line about everyone and the theme of the rap was the connection that we’ve already established within this class.” 

Like the inside students, Miller finds the course both academically rigorous and dramatically humanizing. “The depth of the conversations that come out of that class far surpass any law school class that I’ve ever taken,” she says. Without doubt, the experience will leave a lasting imprint. “Renaldo said it best,” Miller explains (referring to Hudson). “Everyone is better than their worst act, myself included. And everyone has made bad decisions, and everyone has a story, and everyone is a human at the end of the day. And so when I think about those threads that I’ll pull on for the rest of my life … it really always comes back to that.”

If the students’ testimony makes clear the myriad benefits of prison education, the teachers get just as much out of it. Momen also served as a GTA for the drama class. Each week, they drove through three states for three hours each way to attend the class. “I knew I could not pass up this rare opportunity to participate in imagining a better world, and as always, I have gotten more out than I give,” they  said. “I am newly energized, not to mention humbled, by what these students, inside and out, create when given the opportunity to learn.” 

Supporting Families

Harper, the GTA and English graduate student, got involved in the program soon after her brother was charged with a felony. He is currently in jail awaiting trial. “Having someone in my family who is incarcerated - and I do imagine that this is a common feeling for a lot of people who have loved ones who are incarcerated -  it’s just a very hopeless feeling. You feel like you can’t do much besides add money to commissary, go to the Saturday visits when you’re in town, send a book or two every now and again.” Feeling she can’t do enough for her brother, Harper finds hope in helping other incarcerated individuals. “I think my biggest thing for this class is I kind of need it to give myself this comfort that these programs are going to continue growing and that education in prisons is hopefully going to prosper more than it has in the past. It’s a step toward doing enough,” she said. “That is what this class means to me.” 

Harper’s experience of having a loved one in prison is shared by many Americans. Rates of incarceration have risen over 500% in the last 40 years, and the US leads the world in the rate at which it incarcerates its citizens. West Virginia’s incarceration rates have also increased dramatically during this time, especially for women. With such high incarceration rates, it stands to reason many families are affected. In fact, a 2019 study by the bipartisan advocacy group and Cornell University found that one in two adult Americans has had an immediate family member in jail or prison for at least one night, one in seven adults has had an immediate family member incarcerated for at least one year, and one in 34 adults has had an immediate family member spend 10 years or longer in prison. At the time of publication, the study estimated that 6.5 million people in the U.S. had an immediate family member incarcerated–that’s 1 in 38.

Having an incarcerated family member affects the health and well being of the family. Abundant research shows that children are negatively affected by having an incarcerated parent, and new research demonstrates that families, as a whole, suffer in terms of economic stability and mental and emotional health when a family member is incarcerated. Prison education programs help strengthen family bonds and economic security. 

Transforming Higher Education Itself

Darrin Lester is another recent graduate who exemplifies the difference HEP programs make. Lester, who is currently pursuing a master’s in social work at WVU and also serves on the WVU HEPI Advisory Board, received his B.A. through Appalachian Bible College while incarcerated at Mt. Olive, a state maximum security prison in Fayette County, West Virginia. While at Mt. Olive, Lester and a partner started a mentoring program to help other incarcerated men choose a better life path. And the contributions didn’t stop there. Lester also started the first hospice program in a West Virginia prison so that, as he says, “a man doesn’t have to die alone,” and he initiated a yearly hygiene drive, collecting products the incarcerated men bought at the commissary for distribution to children in foster care. This program has special meaning for many of the men because, as Lester explains, they had spent time in foster care themselves or currently have children in foster care. 

Six months out from his release date, Lester applied to WVU’s master’s program in social work. Then, with the help of Ryan and others, he made the transition from Mt. Olive to the Morgantown campus where, as he reports, the students, faculty, and staff of the Social Work program could not have been more welcoming. Since his release, in addition to pursuing his master’s degree, Lester has started a re-entry program to help other men make the transition from Mt. Olive to life after incarceration. 

Higher education in prison programs provide a lifeline to incarcerated individuals–a line that connects them to family and community. Yet such programs are difficult to establish, and only three of West Virginia’s five federal prisons and 21 state prisons and jails offer such programming, according to available sources.** Though not located in West Virginia, SCI Greene emerged as the best location for HEPI’s degree program because of its proximity to both WVU and Waynesburg University. Waynesburg University, which offers an associate degree (WVU-Morgantown does not), will provide half the general education courses remotely and confer the degree. WVU instructors will teach the rest of the courses in-person. 

In reflecting on the program’s complex origins, Ryan thinks back to her early Inside-Out classes at other state and federal prisons. “At the end of each class, while those of us on the outside could go back to our work and studies, students on the inside had no guarantee of another class. It seemed so wrong.” In fact, one of the inside students, Dorian, drew up a detailed blueprint for an associate degree program, but they were never able to implement it. “There is not a story I can tell about this process that doesn't contain heartbreak,” Ryan says, “and the heartbreak here is that we were not able to build the program at the prison where [Dorian] was confined. I hope with HEPI we are honoring his determination and vision.”   

Born of great determination and vision, WVU HEPI provides a transformative opportunity–not only for the men in SCI Greene but also for students at WVU. “I believe that the promise of higher education in prison includes the transformation of higher education itself,” Ryan attests. “My own teaching has been revitalized by going inside prisons—it’s more creative, responsive, collaborative.” Revitalized teaching at WVU is just one more way the benefits of prison education extend well beyond the prison walls. 

* Prison policy prohibits interviews with and publication of the last names of the men who are incarcerated. They submitted written comments for this story.

** Gilmer Federal Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison, offers an associate degree in business and a bachelor’s of science in business administration. Huttonsville Correctional Center in Randolph County offers associate degrees in business and health. Both programs are taught through Glenville State University and are funded by need-based Pell Grants. Appalachian Bible College runs a B.A. degree program at Mt. Olive Correctional Complex, although the program is not listed with the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison’s National Directory of HEP Programs. Ryan reports that WVU HEPI aims to identify and connect regional higher education degree programs in the future, with the goal of building a stronger support system.

West Virginia Higher Education in Prison Sites (Degree Programs Only)

by Gwen Bergner
Associate Professor of English
Harriet E. Lyon Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies