Pioneering a four-year prison education program

Olivia Doak

Starting next fall, Augustana will offer a four-year degree program for incarcerated men at East Moline Correctional Center (EMCC). A select group of applicants will be able to participate in the program and earn a Bachelor’s degree from Augustana while in the prison.
The program is called the Augustana Prison Education Program (APEP) and is based off of the Bard Prison Initiative, a program that allows people in prison to get a Bachelor’s degree from Bard College.
Dr. Wendy Hilton-Morrow, provost and dean of the college, said that there are numerous benefits of prison education, including benefits for Augustana students. According to Morrow, students will have experiential learning opportunities, like going into the prison to take blended classes or offering tutoring services.
Senior Anne Bak said that she wants to bring music to the prison by performing or teaching lessons.
“I always want to spread my gift of music to people, and it would be a good way to spread my art to other people and inspire them,” Bak said.
Although Bak is a senior and likely won’t be able to be involved in the program, she said that she’s glad Augustana is continuing to offer education in a new and important way. “[Offering an education] to other people who have never experienced that in their life is a gift and a privilege,” Bak said.
The program was pioneered by Dr. Sharon Varallo, professor of communication studies. Prison reform, specifically prison education, became a source of passion for Varallo after her daughter was falsely accused and put in jail for a crime she did not commit. After going through that experience, Varallo said she’s learned too much to not do something with that knowledge.
“I want to do all of it but I can’t. I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a judge, I’m not a prison official, I’m not a police officer, I’m not any of those things. I’m an educator,” Varallo said. “And so I started looking into higher education in prison. I just decided that this is what I do and this is how I can move forward and make things better.”
The program is not paid for by Augustana, instead it is funded by a grant from the Knowlton foundation. The grant will cover program costs for a year and a half, so after that time is up, Dr. Varallo will apply for other grants to continue the program.
Varallo and Dr. Jason Mahn, professor of religion, both taught classes at EMCC prior to the development of APEP. Both Varallo and Mahn said that the students are highly motivated and extremely grateful.
“Once we start, it’s an incredible experience. The students are really grateful for time to think about texts and to read and to write and debate with one another,” Mahn said.
“On the whole, you will not find a more motivated group of students than when you teach a class in a prison,” Varallo said.
However, there are unique challenges about teaching in a prison. For example, there is no internet access and all materials are limited and must go through a lengthy screening process. Trust also needs to be developed between professor and student, and often at the start, students don’t believe in their own abilities.
“A lot of them have never seen themselves as a student and don’t know that they’re fully capable,” Varallo said. “I had one man come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t know I was smart enough to do this.’”
Mahn also had similar experiences with students, including when he told the students to challenge him, the text and other students. One student came up to him after class and asked if Mahn really wanted him to disagree and talk back.
“Everything in our prison systems is about following rules, not talking back, not being an individual and not thinking for yourself,” Mahn said. “It’s just a really different way of life for them…and it’s a place where I’ve felt my own calling as a teacher come alive and a place where students’ callings as critical thinkers has come alive as well.”
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are many benefits that come with a prison education program. One is reduced recidivism rates, meaning when people recieve an education in prison they are much less likely to go back to prison. Statistically, it saves the community money, because for every $1 spent on prison education, Americans save $5 on other costs.
“These individuals might’ve made a mistake or two, and they could’ve done it when they were our age or younger and that just set them up for a different path than the one we’re on,” said senior Grace Carpenter. “So if we can help them by giving them the same education that we’re getting, it might help them in the future make better decisions and [provide] more opportunities.”