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WVU Higher Education in Prison Initiative selected for Sunshine Lady Foundation Award

The West Virginia University Higher Education in Prison Initiative (WVU HEPI) has been awarded two years of grant funding from the Sunshine Lady Foundation to support its Academic Leadership and Development Program.  

The Initiative is committed to improving educational access and equity for people imprisoned in the Appalachian region. Its work includes building an associate degree program at State Correctional Institution Greene (SCI-Greene), a maximum-security prison in Waynesburg, PA.

HEPI offers leadership development opportunities for people impacted by the criminal punishment system, provides support to released people pursuing higher education and integrates restorative practices and a commitment to racial justice into everyday operations. The initiative aims to build supportive networks that bridge the divide of prison walls and make possible a more diverse and inclusive WVU Mountaineer community.

HEPI also partners with the Appalachian Prison Book Project on a scholarship program, awarding scholarships each year to released people enrolled in college in West Virginia. The education scholarship provides key support to students transitioning from prison to the University, which helps build a supportive network of formerly incarcerated college and graduate students across the region. 

Beginning January 15, 2024, HEPI will receive $60,000 each year for the two years via the Sunshine Lady grant. Funds will be used to invest in growth opportunities and experiential learning for currently and formerly incarcerated people: tutoring positions, a book club, technical support, and coursework on the inside; a graduate assistantship for a released student, scholarships, and emergency funds on the outside. 

This investment is foundational to building a reentry program, especially needed in our state. ,

“We were in conversation with the Sunshine Lady Foundation for a year or so before we were invited to apply," said Founding Director Katy Ryan. "It has been a genuine partnership and such a learning opportunity. I'm grateful for the steady guidance from Sunshine Lady and to Eberly College for assistance with the grant application. The students at Greene are doing truly phenomenal work. Their motivation to learn and to share what they are learning with others inspires all of us at HEPI.”

At Greene, a peer-led Writing Studio will be staffed by students who, in providing writing services to people throughout the prison, will develop a host of professional skills. The book club makes books and educational discussions available beyond the cohort. Technical support will help students complete coursework and improve computer skills. The main beneficiaries of this award are students at Greene and recently released people pursuing higher education. The cohort will earn academic credits toward a degree and gain a supportive community and confidence as scholars, artists, entrepreneurs, and writers. Others confined at Greene will benefit from the Book Club and Writing Studio. Recently released scholarship recipients will have financial support for their educational goals and a community to assist with navigating higher education. We hope to support 50 imprisoned and recently released scholars with this grant over the two-year period.

HEPI will also expand leadership opportunities and strengthen its capacity to support people transitioning from prison to the University, creating a pathway to campus for HEPI participants who wish to continue their education at WVU upon release. Currently, no formal pathway exists.

Prior to learning of this award, HEPI’s Reentry Coordinator and system-impacted graduate student, Darrin Lester, provided unending support to returning citizens, assisting with housing, employment, technology, and education, until his recent, untimely passing. Throughout his transition from prison and reentry work, the initiative learned how critical it is to have an emergency fund that can be accessed quickly during crises, whether related to mental health, physical health, or housing.

“The purpose of HEPI is not rehabilitation but transformation. We believe education is essential for that process to have any real meaning," Lester 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.” 

“We are grateful for the early and continued support we have received for this Initiative from the University and the Laughing Gull Foundation since our inception," said Co-Founder and Program Coordinator, Rayna Momen. "This award from Sunshine Lady will help take our reentry initiatives to the next level. With 95% of incarcerated people eventually being released, reentry support is critical to prison education programs and these efforts begin on the inside.”

HEPI stresses higher education’s capacity to increase self-efficacy, reaffirm humanity, create lifelong learning practices, inspire curiosity, and strengthen practical leadership and communication and problem solving skills. One student wrote: “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.” 

For more information on WVU HEPI including ways to support the Initiative, contact Jim Nolan, Interim Director, at or Rayna Momen, Co-Founder and 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.

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