We are convinced that higher education has a critical role to play in moving our country away from mass incarceration. In prison, college classes generate hope, direction, and purpose.
Access to higher education can improve the economic trajectories of families and communities. When one family member goes to college, others often follow. APBP has seen the impact of our book clubs on individuals as well as on their children, spouses, and loved ones.
Beyond these positive outcomes, educational programs also make prisons safer for those who live and work within them. Renaldo Hudson of the Illinois Prison Project talked to a graduate class about his time on death row, the importance of education, and what gives him hope.
After 37 years in prison, Renaldo was released in September 2020 and is now the Education Director at the Illinois Prison Project.
Higher Education in Prison Initiative
The Higher Education in Prison Initiative (HEPI) stems from a decades-long partnership between West Virginia University (WVU) and the Appalachian Prison Book Project (APBP).
In 2022, HEPI launched the associate degree program at State Correctional Institution Greene (SCI-Greene) in partnership with Waynesburg University and with grant support from the Laughing Gull Foundation. Upon completion of the sixty required credit hours, students will earn an Associate of Arts degree in Professional Studies from Waynesburg University. APBP helps to pay costs for tuition and books for inside students.
HEPI continues to extend education opportunities beyond the classroom; to develop leadership from people who have been directly impacted by the criminal punishment system; to provide support to returning citizens who want to pursue higher education; and to integrate restorative practices and a commitment to racial justice into everyday operations.
Following a 2022 Inside-Out course, students created the Inspiring Change Collective Think Tank (ICC), a facet of HEPI that fosters community at SCI-Greene. This group of inside and outside students, faculty, and prison staff develop educational programming at the prison. The ICC prioritizes persistence and imagining better communities for all of us.
In 2021, APBP created an education scholarship program for recently incarcerated students in West Virginia. This year, four $3,000 scholarships will be awarded to students who have been released from a WVDCR state prison or federal prison in WV and who will be starting or continuing their undergraduate or graduate education at a college or university in WV during the 2022–2023 academic year. Applications are due July 15, 2022.
Appalachian Community Think Tank
The Appalachian Community Think Tank (ACTT) was born out of a 2019 Inside-Out Justice in Literature course consisting of West Virginia University undergraduates and incarcerated students at SCI-Fayette. Following the class, inside members and outside participants came together to form ACTT in January 2020.
Then COVID-19 hit.
To keep in touch and stay connected during the pandemic, when prisons were closed to visitors, we created a temporary newsletter (Summer 2020, Fall 2020) featuring content from inside and outside members. Sadly, we have not been able to return to Fayette. But the work we are doing now is rooted in the tremendous learning community forged in Fayette. We think of our colleagues often and hope to do justice to their vision.
Educational Justice and Appalachian Prisons Symposium
The Educational Justice and Appalachian Prisons Symposium, held in 2014, brought together people interested in higher education in prison, restorative justice, re-entry initiatives, and prison book projects. Funded by a West Virginia Humanities Council grant and co-coordinated by APBP and the West Virginia University Department of English, the three-day symposium enriched attendees’ understanding of issues affecting Appalachian prisons and prepared them to implement action plans related to educational justice.