With the start of a new semester, so too resumes a program that represents Grinnell’s twin commitments to social justice and the local Iowa community: Liberal Arts in Prison. This multi-site program allows students in Iowa prisons and juvenile homes to receive an education similar to that of a Grinnell College student.

“We want to provide an excellent liberal arts education to people in prison,” said Program Coordinator Emily Guenther ’07. “We have an accredited program that offers a first year at Grinnell [College] to people at the Newton Correctional facility and that’s fully accredited by Grinnell and Grinnell professors [who] teach the same courses.”

From left, former prisoner Kyle Orth, Prison Program Coordinator Emily Guenther ’07, Amber Gruner ’13 and Brian Buckley ’14. Photographed by Rebecca Rea-Holloway.

There are now a variety of opportunities for Grinnell College students to teach and volunteer with the program. Students can teach their own classes, serve as tutors in a variety of subjects and even act as mentors for the accredited curriculum.

In addition, students can decide to work at any of a number of different institutions. Aside from the Newton Correctional facility, students can tutor GED at the women’s prison in Mitchellville or work with high school students at the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo.

“I think it is important for us to do [the Liberal Arts in Prison program] because people in prison are very good students and are very articulate,” Guenther said.

Many students and professors are involved with teaching and tutoring at the prison. There are also student coordinators to help run and organize each semester’s courses.

“[The program] is something that all professors and students at Grinnell can benefit from,” Guenther said.

The program’s curriculum has expanded quite a bit over the last 10 years. This semester’s classes include Literary Analysis, an introductory level history class, College Writing, Introduction to Islam, a memoir class, a theater class and a course in global development.

“[The students] go into the prisons and see people who are so motivated to learn and can articulate so well the value of what it is that we are doing anyway on campus,” Guenther said. “That is incredibly valuable for us.”

25-year old Kyle Orth was a student in the Liberal Arts in Prison program who was released from the Newton Correctional Facility earlier this month. He came to campus on Sunday to speak at a program meeting about the positive effects the program has had on his life.

“Liberal arts has taught me above all else how to learn,” he said. “It has given [me] the self-esteem and momentum to approach things with more confidence.”

Orth, originally from Blue Grass, Iowa, is currently studying at Kirkwood Community College and lives in Cedar Rapids. He plans to spend his spring semester at Kirkwood and afterwards attend a four-year school such as the University of Iowa or even Grinnell College.

As part of the Liberal Arts in Prison program, Orth took a class in neuroscience.

“I have always been fascinated by the way the mind works and it helped me understand a little bit about myself,” Orth said.

Some of the other courses Orth took at Newton included History: 1968 Around the World, Musicianship, Writing and Public Speaking.

“[A liberal arts education] has taught me how to learn and how to approach material, and not just in school, but just in the world in general,” Orth said. “It has been a source of identity for me.”

Having experienced the benefits of the program first-hand, Orth encourages others to participate.

“I feel like the most effective and the purest way to rehabilitate somebody is through higher education,” Orth said.

With his prison time behind him, Orth is ready to build upon the foundation he created through the Liberal Arts in Prison program. Above all, he is thankful for the skills and confidence the program has given him.

“[The program has] really given me a sense of momentum [and] a sense of direction,” he said. “It has enhanced my life and really pushed me. I just want to stress how thankful I am.”