Educating a new type of student


Chris Ferman

Albert Redmond discusses his notes and sources for his class assignment at EMCC on OCt. 1, 2021

Brett Kuras

On April 16, 2021, Observer staff member Olivia Doak reported on a new program that Augustana College was going to be a part of in the coming semester. This academic school year, the program officially became a reality. The program is called Augustana Prison Education Program (APEP), and it creates the opportunity for inmates at East Moline Correctional Center to receive a Bachelor of arts in communication studies from Augustana College.

The program was an idea fueled and set into motion by Dr. Sharon Varallo, whose personal ties to the prison system make it so much more personal.

Varallo’s daughter was falsely accused of a crime, where the sentence, if convicted, was 6-30  years in state prison. After experiencing that ordeal with her daughter, Varallo realized she could not sit idly and let others suffer from the injustices in the prison system. 

“It is people who do not have the funds to hire an attorney, and it is people who do not have education who are caught up and cannot get out of the legal system,” Varallo said. 

Varallo is not the only professor that is involved in the new program. Dr. Jason Mahn, professor of religion, director of the presidential center for faith and learning, said he feels just as passionate as Varallo does.

“I’m really interested in all kinds of justice, and because I’m a Christian theologian, I’m really interested in lives of redemption,” Mahn said. “I try to go to places where there is a real transformation happening, and I think that’s happening through education at East Moline Correctional Center.”

Varallo was quick to note that she is not the legal system and that she has one job when she arrives every day: to teach. Although some inmates may have more severe charges, Varallo said it is not in her power to decide if they deserve redemption, and she is not in the business of denying education.

“I’m not a judge, I’m a professor,” Varallo said. “We do education. We do not ask our students what’s the worst thing you’ve done, nor do we ask them to label themselves for us … We are all imperfect humanity. 

The APEP program is funded privately through a grant from the Knowlton Foundation. The grant covers program costs for a year and a half,  Varallo will apply for other grants once that time is up 

Not only is the program innovative, but there are many benefits to prison education. Studies from Global Tech Link (GTL) a telecommunications company that aids inmates with calling services, show that with an associate’s degree, re-incarceration rates drop to 13.7 percent. With a bachelor’s, the rate drops to 5.6 percent. Lastly, with a master’s degree, the rate is so low it’s effectively 0 percent.

Varallo said she hopes to continue the program for as long as she can and that she’s grateful that she has an experienced and educated team to help her along the way. 


Correction: Sharon Varallo’s daughter would have spent 6-30 years in state prison, not federal prison. Article has been edited to include the correction