Liberal arts in prison celebrates expansion, gears up for Fall term

The Liberal Arts in Prison Program is wrapping up its ninth year of teaching in Iowa correctional facilities and its fourth year with a full-time coordinator, Emily Guenther ’07.

This also marks the inaugural year of the First Year of College program, through which incarcerated students complete about eight credits every semester for two years. At the completion of the program, participants will have the equivalent of one year as a full-time Grinnell student.

Over the summer, Guenther went through an admissions process to select the first cohort of fifteen men for the inaugural First Year of College Program at the Newton Medium Security Prison.

“Most of the men are getting out of prison this semester, so they won’t have a [full] first year, but they have completed a semester of coursework from Grinnell and they’re all very interested in going to college once they get out,” Guenther said.

Along with history, statistics, and writing, the men in the program this semester are learning to take pride in their identities as students.

“The men in that program consider themselves college students and associate very strongly with Grinnell and have a great amount of pride in their studies and also have developed a group identity,” explained Guenther.

In addition to the First Year in College program, the Liberal Arts in Prison program continues to work with Grinnellian student volunteers who tutor and teach classes at four correctional facilities in the area. Among them are the Newton Correctional Facility, the Correctional Release Center in Newton, the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville and the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo.

As the program educates inmates, it also provides a valuable experience for student volunteers. One out of seven graduating students in the class of 2012 has participated in the program, rendering it a widespread experience. Eric Ritter ’12 is the Prison Program Student Coordinator and has been involved in the program since his first semester at Grinnell.

“Obviously it takes on added significance that the fact that [you learn] the same kind of lessons that you would learn from any other students,” Ritter said. “That breaks down preconceptions and barriers that you have about people who live in prisons.”

Sam Mulopulos ‘14 started tutoring during his first year at the College and has taught classes public speaking and earth systems science since then.

“[Teaching in prison] really hones your leadership skills. I think it’s a good exercise in responsibility and trust,” Mulopulos said. I’ve been very able to take the skills I’ve learned there, they are very translatable to a variety of different things.”

The Liberal Arts in Prison program is organized not only by students, faculty and staff from Grinnell, but also by inmates themselves. John Hammers was incarcerated for twelve years and contributed to the Liberal Arts in Prison program from the inside.

“We helped organize it, set up classrooms, we petitioned verbally and through posting throughout the institution that there were classes available,” Hammers said. “We eventually got our own computers and created a data base to keep track of the classes and who was in them and what supplies they were getting and essentially running the whole program.”
Hammers came to campus this past fall for a symposium in celebration of the program and met his professors George Drake and Eric McIntyre for the first time outside of prison. He credits the fact that he has stayed out of jail to the Liberal Arts in Prison Program and the direction that it has given him.

“In the Iowa department of corrections, they really give you no direction as to what you should do when you get out,” Hammers explained. “[The Program] made me more confident with my release that at least I had some place to go. I’m going to get out, enroll in school, and I had a tentative plan at least.”

Going forward, program coordinators are now accepting applications for student-taught classes in order to start the program at the beginning of the Fall 2012 semester. Applications for student teachers are due on April 30. All students with an interest in teaching in prison are encouraged to apply by contacting [grinnellinprison].