Monday, August 21, 2017

In a recent meeting between prospective students and University of Iowa faculty, questions came up that sounded pretty routine: “Am I going to get credit for this?” “Will there be homework?” “What’s the time commitment?” These weren’t incoming freshman, however, but a group of men currently incarcerated at the Iowa Medical & Classification Center (“Oakdale”) in Coralville, IA. They were learning about the UI Speaker Series at Oakdale, a new pilot program that starts this fall in which volunteer UI educators will teach one-evening short courses to a select group of incarcerated men.

The project is the brainchild of Kathrina Litchfield, a PhD candidate in Literacy, Language, & Culture in the College of Education, who started volunteering at the prison in 2011 during her first year as a School of Library & Information Science master’s student. Litchfield, a 2014 Obermann Graduate Institute Fellow, said the library at the prison was nothing like her understanding of what a library could be; nor did it lead to educational opportunities for its patrons. In 2014, she decided to continue toward a PhD, convinced that her work at Oakdale was not yet complete. Not only did she want to see robust libraries staffed by trained librarians in Iowa’s correctional facilities, but she wanted the knowledge gained in those libraries to be applicable to credit-earning, college-level courses.

Presidential support

The recent meeting with prospective students included not only the volunteer UI faculty who will be teaching in the Speaker Series, but also President Bruce Harreld, College of Education Dean Dan Clay (both of whom will teach a course at Oakdale), and UI Associate Provost for Outreach and Engagement Linda Snetselaar. 

“President Harreld was extremely motivated to learn from the men about their expectations and hopes for the program,” says Litchfield. “He really encouraged those in attendance to spread the word about what a great opportunity this is for anyone to challenge themselves.” She adds that in November, at the end of the Series, Harreld will confer UI certificates of completion on the students.

September 8 & 9 conference

Litchfield and her planning committee’s goal is to expand the Speaker Series program so that students can earn college credit. To this end, the group has organized a two-day community conference focused on the current situation in Iowa pertaining to education, incarceration, and reentry. On the second day of the conference, leaders of five different credit-earning programs will share their models.

The Role of Transformative Education in Successful Reentry, which is free and open to the public, will take place September 8 and 9 on the UI campus. Litchfield hopes the community, including anyone interested in the topic of incarceration in America—but especially educators who are interested in working with currently and formerly incarcerated people—will attend.

The first day of the conference is focused on a broad overview of reentry. Of the 5,000 inmates released from Iowa state prisons each year who hope for productive lives, stable jobs, and housing, more than 35 percent end up back in prison. Prison education and job training programs have been proven to lower recidivism rates—and yet the only higher-ed accredited program in Iowa is the Liberal Arts in Prison project, founded by current UI College of Education student Emily Guenther when she was an undergraduate at Grinnell College. The project operates at the Newton Correctional Facility.

“While reducing recidivism is a worthy goal, it is not our only one,” says Guenther. “We see college in prison as part of our liberal arts mission, and we maintain the same broad goals for students in and out of prison. Our incarcerated students are remarkably talented and dedicated to learning. This program affirms the value of liberal arts education for everyone who participates.”

Guenther will be joined by representatives from other programs to share their models and provide a clearer roadmap for the UI team as they further develop the Oakdale Speaker Series. Daniel Karpowitz, co-founder of the nationally renowned Bard Prison Initiative and author of College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration, will provide a keynote. Other speakers include Fred Patrick of the Vera Institute of Justice, Adam Bush of College Unbound, Iowa Department of Corrections Director Jerry Bartruff, Oakdale Warden Jim McKinney, and many “returned citizens”—formerly incarcerated men and women—who will share their personal stories of struggle for successful reentry in Iowa.

Minds expanded, lives transformed

These stories, for Litchfield, are the most exciting part of the conference: “When we hear stories of people returning to productive, full lives, that’s what sticks with us.” She recounts the story of one man who, upon release from prison, found work at T&D Auto Repair in Burlington, Iowa. “He had no formal education, but he was able to transform his life through on-the-job training at a supportive company. Messages like his need to be heard by local employers.” Litchfield hopes that the stories shared at the conference will initiate conversations about hiring practices and ultimately encourage Iowa employers to look past applicants’ criminal records.

Litchfield stresses that the program now taking shape at Oakdale is neither a job-training model, nor is it customized for an incarcerated community. One course, for example, is on WWI poetry. When students sign up, they must agree to take the entire series, whether they’re interested in a topic or not. “We want to model how college works; there are classes you have to take, and we are dedicated to providing the same rigor that UI students experience on campus,” she says. It’s also important to her that the students enjoy education for education’s sake. “You can get a plumber’s certificate and still study philosophy,” she says, noting that education is an issue of human dignity.

Both the series and the conference are intended to aid educators as much as incarcerated students. Litchfield hopes that more UI educators will become interested in the program, thus diversifying the offerings to incarcerated students and supporting Oakdale as a UI learning community and research site for developing innovative pedagogy.

 We know what we are, but know not what we may be. 

Shakespeare Behind Bars

The conference will kick off on Thursday, September 7, with a screening of the documentary film Shakespeare Behind Bars and a Q&A with that program’s founder, Curt Tofteland. Friday will feature a welcome address by Iowa State Senator Joe Bolkcom, a keynote lecture, and several panels with returned citizens, scholars, and community support programs. Saturday events include a keynote and book signing by Karpowitz, plus panels of alumni and directors of college-in-prison programs. On both days, attendees can join small group discussions on educational programming in prisons; racial disparities in the criminal justice system; strengthening family and community bonds; and local advocacy opportunities for reentry, sentencing reform, and ban-the-box efforts (i.e., initiatives that call for removing the checkbox “Have you been convicted by a court?” from applications for employment, housing, public benefits, and loans).

All conference events will take place in room 2520D on the second floor of the University Capitol Centre (Old Capitol Mall) and are free and open to the public. Registration is requested, as seating is limited. Click here to register. 

The Role of Transformative Education in Successful Reentry conference is sponsored by the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights, with support from the UI Office of Outreach & Engagement (Community Impact Grant), the National Institute of Correctionsthe Vera Institute of Justice, and the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies.