In 2011, a consortium of faculty members at Washington University in St. Louis responded to what they saw as a glaring disjunction between theory and practice. The university was conducting research on mass incarceration, offering courses and hosting guest lecturers on the topic—but no campus program existed to address mass incarceration in their own community. The lives of incarcerated individuals were a subject of academic study, rather than an area of tangible change. Their concerns led the faculty members to found the Prison Education Project, a competitive liberal arts degree program for incarcerated students in the Missouri Department of Corrections. The project launched its first courses in 2014 at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, a men’s prison in Pacific, Missouri.
The United States incarcerates more of its population than any other democratic nation, including those with higher crime rates. Missouri’s incarceration rate is even higher than that of the United States—meaning that Missouri, along with the 23 other states whose incarceration rates exceed the national rate, imprisons more of its population than any democratic nation on earth. Black Americans are overrepresented in our nation’s prisons, making up 37 percent of the prison population compared to 13 percent of the general population. Alongside race and ethnicity, education is one of the most decisive contributors to mass incarceration. 30 percent of incarcerated Americans have not attained a high school diploma or equivalent degree, and fewer than 4 percent hold a postsecondary degree (compared to 29 percent of the general population). High school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested than adults who completed high school. The correlation continues in the reverse for those who have been released.
“We have a huge body of research, decades-long, longitudinal studies that tell us that, yes, people are far less likely to go back to prison if they receive a college education,” says Kevin Windhauser, PhD, the director of the Prison Education Project at Washington University, who noted that students who enroll in postsecondary education programs while in prison are 48 percent less likely to be reincarcerated.
While much of the discourse on the impact of prison education programs emphasizes reduced recidivism, Windhauser says that the benefits for individuals go beyond crime reduction. “I think focusing only on recidivism is a relatively reductive way to look at it. While we offer something to incarcerated students, incarcerated students make our university better. Our students are admitted to WashU, which means if they're released and still working on their degree, they can continue their degree. And our students show up on campus bringing new perspectives, life experiences, and personal knowledge. They make the campus richer. They make discussions richer.”
According to Windhauser, prison education programs can improve the mental health of incarcerated students and enrich the learning environments of participating colleges and universities. He began teaching at Taconic Correctional Facility in Westchester County, New York in 2017, when he was a graduate student at Columbia University. He felt that the program was “doing something that I thought a university, especially a big, very wealthy university, should be doing: using its educational mission to reach people who traditionally have been kept out or denied access to those kinds of spaces.”
While many state and federal prisons have historically offered vocational training, the Prison Education Project’s liberal arts model sets it apart. “The ethos from the beginning was to create a liberal arts college in prison,” says Kevin Windhauser, “Missouri has, like many states, something of a tradition of vocational education in prisons, trades work in prisons, job training in prisons—but a liberal arts degree, especially a liberal arts degree from a major R1 university, was just not something that was on offer.”
As an English professor in the program, Windhauser has taught courses on subjects ranging from introductory composition to Shakespeare, Milton, and Melville. Often, he says, reading the Western canon is yet another form of social capital that incarcerated people, often victims of the school-to-prison pipeline, have been denied. In part, he says, incarcerated students enrich discussions of literature due to their distinct perspectives and skills: “People who are incarcerated are often really great noticers, because it's a space where you have to notice things. Just to stay safe in there, you have to be a very good noticer, and it means that there's some incredible, intuitive close reading ability. With a lot of the literature I'm teaching, I'm bringing out that skill which is already there, and so I find that really exciting.”
Since 2017, Windhauser has seen higher education in prison expand into larger and better programs. “My first course in 2017, I taught once a week in a three-hour block. My students had nothing but pencil and paper and whatever readings I could print out and give them. It looked as close as I could get it to a college course. In all honesty, it may have looked a little bit like what a college course looked like in 1970.” Now, says Windhauser, his classes at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center more closely resemble their on-campus counterparts. Students have laptops, Canvas accounts, and utilize research hubs like JSTOR. Windhauser holds regular office hours to ensure students receive individualized attention and support. Class sizes typically range from 10 to 20 students—in part to align with the program’s commitment to a liberal arts education, and also because college in prison requires focused attention on each individual student, who is attending college amid unique logistical, personal, and environmental challenges.
Mental health and the psychological toll of incarceration also affect students pursuing college degrees in prison. “Nationwide, there’s increasing attention being paid to mental health challenges faced by college students. And I think a lot of the mental health challenges faced by incarcerated college students are somewhat similar. Yes, there are a lot of unique challenges to the space and people's lives and the trauma of incarceration, but there are also a lot of very familiar challenges if you've ever taught on any college campus. There are people who are really concerned about academic performance, really worried about their GPA. There are people who are really frustrated to not be understanding something, or anxious about an exam or a particular subject. So you have this pairing with all the familiar concerns, and then they're back-loaded with all of the unique concerns to that space.”
For some, a liberal arts education in prison can be a step toward healing the trauma of incarceration, giving students a sense of agency in an otherwise chaotic world within the prison walls. George Putney, an alumnus of the Prison Education Project, is currently pursuing a Master of Social Work degree in the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. “It gives you a sense of purpose while you're in school,” Putney says of the program, “and it extends that sense of purpose to when you exit.”
Putney is a statistical outlier—he entered prison with a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree. While incarcerated, he began informally mentoring some of the students in the Prison Education Project. The former PEP director asked Putney to join the program, which he did, taking classes and working as a teaching assistant. The program inspired him to pursue his MSW, which he plans to use to work with formerly incarcerated people to try to assist them in some of the major areas of need, including housing, employment, healthcare, and general reacclimation to society. Putney currently works with a St. Louis organization that provides housing assistance, trauma counseling, and substance abuse training to formerly incarcerated women in Missouri.
“I think it allows a person to reach potential that they didn’t know they had. And I only say this anecdotally, but I think it allows people to reintegrate into society in a much more effective manner, where they actually have opportunities and hope of being successful.”
Hemez, Paul, John J. Brent, and Thomas J. Mowen. 2019. “Exploring the School-To-Prison Pipeline: How School Suspensions Influence Incarceration during Young Adulthood.” Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 18 (3): 154120401988094. https://doi.org/10.1177/1541204019880945.
National Center for Education Statistics. 2016. “Highlights from the U.S. PIAAC Survey of Incarcerated Adults: Their Skills, Work Experience, Education, and Training: Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies: 2014.” https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2016/2016040.pdf.
Prison Policy Initiative. “Getting Back on Course: Educational Exclusion and Attainment among Formerly Incarcerated People.” October 2018. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/education.html.
Widra, Emily, et. al. Prison Policy Initiative. “States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2021.” September 2021. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/2021.html#methodology.