Perspectives on Prison Education

Perspectives on Prison Education

Fall 2021

Essay Collection

For the 2.3 million individuals currently incarcerated in the U.S. in federal or state prisons, education can be a driving force in changing the trajectory of their lives and propelling them toward successful reentry into society following release. A study by the RAND Corporation found that incarcerated people who participate in education programs are 48% less likely to recidivate and 13% more likely to gain employment upon release. Prison education also saves taxpayer dollars. In fact, every dollar invested in correctional education is estimated to save nearly $5 in reincarceration costs over three years. However, only 9% of individuals leave prison with a postsecondary education, even though over 70% of incarcerated people desire to participate in an education program.

Numerous CCCU institutions offer educational or professional opportunities to incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individuals. The following essays by incarcerated students, program directors, and CCCU presidents offer a glimpse of the value these programs bring not just for the students who participate, but for campus communities and society as a whole.

My Education Has Transformed My Identity

By James Young Sturdivant, Calvin University

My name is James (Jamie) Young Sturdivant. I am in my final year of college via the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI), and I am scheduled to receive my hard-earned bachelor’s degree in May 2022. I never imagined I would be accepted into a college program and never would have thought I would excel to the degree that I have thus far. I did not believe I was smart enough.

When I think back to my days in elementary school, I remember most searingly being bullied mercilessly. I hated school and vowed to drop out the first chance I got. Therefore, the highest grade I completed was sixth grade. This was after being held back in the fourth. I had zero interest in school or whatever the teachers were teaching. I even had one teacher force me to stand in front of the class while she encouraged the students to make fun of me; she was the same teacher that held me back in the fourth grade. The bullying ruined my school experience, so I sat in class daydreaming about not being there. Since I was not learning anything, the school thought I must have a learning disability and placed me in a class for special education students. I had no way of refuting their assumption about me, so I started to believe and accept that I must have a learning disability. Once I accepted their label, I stopped trying to learn altogether. I just wanted out of school.

When people asked me what I wanted to be when I was older, I would always say a truck driver. Not because I had any passion for driving trucks, but because I somehow learned I did not need a high school diploma for that job. I heard I just had to go to truck driving school.

I was arrested 10 days after my 17th birthday, and at that point it had been years since I had last stepped foot into a school building. I was, for all intents and purposes, illiterate. I knew words like cat, dog, and the, but that was it. I taught myself how to read while sitting aimlessly in the county jail awaiting trial, and I loved it so much that I started to read anything with words. I went from a first-grade reading and comprehension level to a 12th-grade level in three years. It was at that point I started to question my early diagnosis of a learning disability. Again, I had no way to disprove that diagnosis.

In 2017, I applied and was accepted into the CPI program. I was intimidated by the expectations, but I had reached a point in my life where I wanted to challenge myself. I was afraid that if I told the professors about my presumed learning disability, they would treat me differently; I decided not to play that card. After completing my first semester, I revealed to my Old Testament professor, Dr. Christiana DeGroot, my diagnosis of being learning disabled. She looked at me and said, “I don’t see it.” That was all it took for me to no longer believe the misdiagnosis of my elementary school teachers.

I have excelled beyond my imagination while attending college. The lowest semester grade I have earned is a B (twice), and my GPA is currently 3.62. I have made the Dean’s List every semester allowable, and I am looking forward not only to graduating but most importantly to being a lifelong learner.

Engaging with the CPI professors and staff has been instrumental in shaping the way I look at myself as a student. I feel that I have value as a human being, despite the horrific crimes I committed 25 years ago. When I walk out of my cell in the morning, I am reminded with every turn that I am a prisoner. When I am in a CPI classroom, I am expected to behave and see myself as a student, and that has given me permission to transform my identity. I am more than a student; I am imago Dei.

James Young Sturdivant is a student at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary’s Calvin Prison Initiative, held at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan.


My Wrongful Conviction Led to My Degree

By Justin Cook, Nyack College

Nyack College, a private Christian college affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, is also the provider of an in-prison college program in New York. Recidivism, or the act of reoffending, has become a persistent byproduct of our prison system, feeding into the endless cycle of incarceration. As of 2018, graduates of Nyack’s program at Fishkill Correctional Facility had a 0% recidivism rate, whereas New York State’s recidivism rate overall was more than 40%. Incarceration has become a normal life event for many Black males, with one out of three likely to be admitted to prison. During my own experience with incarceration, the Nyack program provided a cornerstone for my rehabilitation.

As one of the many in the U.S. who are wrongly convicted, I owe my college enrollment to a miscarriage of justice. But even though I was innocent, my incarceration allowed time for me to examine my life. Raised in a single-parent home, expelled from every ill-equipped public school I attended, and wrestling with traumatic experiences meant I was well-suited to fit the Black male stereotype. Confinement gave me the opportunity to confront my phantoms of want and the ghosts of my past, and it magnified my plight. My attempt to bypass critical steps in life caused me to stumble into prison. Education was a major step I had ignored, but I decided I would ignore it no longer. My high schools were fashioned with bars, metal detectors, violence, and outdated, inferior textbooks; my high school experience prepared me for prison, rather than college. However, once I graduated to prison, I became curious about college.

Inside my cell, I found myself praying to God to be delivered from the fires of my own ignorance. Ironically, others around me were looking for pages of Proverbs — not for self-understanding but to use as rolling papers. But I began to peruse religious texts, autobiographies, historical fiction, and eastern philosophy, where I came across the premature burials of the Confucian scholars. Was I buried alive in support of a discriminatory system that despised me? Identifying with the buried scholars, I began to focus on the educational programs provided in prison, placing myself around prisoners attending Nyack and others who were similarly inclined toward wanting education. Once opportunity came knocking, I answered, and I was received by a professor eager to interview me.

I was accepted. Nyack College believed in me when I had doubts about my own academic capabilities. I defied the odds, overcoming the obstacles created by my environment and poor decision-making. College had a positive impact on my self-esteem, negating the daily humiliations of my prison environment. I was no longer a dehumanized being. I was a college student. My professors guided me to think critically, and I began to use that discipline to reprocess my conviction. God was revealing his grand plan, and I became receptive to the message. I began to work towards re-proclaiming my innocence.

The Nyack program taught me to be receptive to new information, bestowing a fortified confidence that assisted me in the reversal of my conviction. The program also introduced me to the importance of community and our responsibility to friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

Since my release, Nyack has helped me attend college in-person for the first time, participate on a panel at Columbia University School of Social Work, and create UpliftingNY, a nonprofit organization to reduce violence amongst youth. More importantly, the confidence I gained through Nyack helped me to become a better person, son, brother, friend, and father.

Justin Cook is a student at Nyack College (New York, NY); he originally enrolled through the college’s partnership with Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison at Fishkill Correctional Facility.


A Small Investment with Eternal Dividends

By Mark A. Smith, Columbia International University

Since 2007, Columbia International University’s Prison Initiative program has trained 169 inmates to impact South Carolina Department of Correction (SCDC) institutions with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The program’s goal is to equip our students to change the culture of South Carolina prisons from the inside by the transformational power of the gospel. The graduates of the Prison Initiative receive accredited associates degrees through a two-year program located within Kirkland Correctional Institution, the Receive and Evaluation (R & E) institution for South Carolina.

Columbia International University (CIU) faculty and staff enter the prison to teach the student-inmates the same courses that CIU offers on our main campus. The student inmates are fully a part of the CIU student body; like their peers, they are taught to know Christ and are trained to make him known worldwide. The Prison Initiative students receive a well-rounded education, including courses in English, psychology, Old and New Testament, public speaking, evangelism and discipleship, and hermeneutics. Students also receive practical training such as hospice care, crisis counseling, men’s fraternity, and reentry preparation programs.

In addition to academic training, students engage in hands-on ministry, with the opportunity to minister and share the gospel with every inmate that enters SCDC. Over 20,000 visits to new inmates have resulted in thousands of first-time decisions and rededications to Christ each year. One of our students journaled a powerful experience he had while ministering in the dorms:

“Last week, I went to the Youthful Offender Act Reception and Evaluation dorm with two CIU brothers. We took turns telling our stories and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. That night, 39 young men, mostly gangbangers, gave their lives to the Lord for the first time. The world calls them worthless. I’ve been sent to tell them they are precious to God.”

The program’s impact has been statewide, as graduates are stationed at 22 institutions around the state and serve under the leadership of SCDC chaplains as their assistants and workers. Graduates of the Prison Initiative are being utilized to preach and teach, counsel the bereaved, work in the infirmary and crisis units, serve as character-based dorm leaders, and provide one-on-one mentoring. They are peacemakers on the yard and can relate to their fellow inmates in ways that SCDC officers, staff, and chaplains cannot.

Over 45 of our former students have been released from prison and successfully integrated into society. The recidivism rate for students in the program is 3%, which is one of the lowest in the nation for these types of programs. In addition, the Prison Initiative has been impactful in the rehabilitative and restorative process of men and women who have been incarcerated.

Columbia International University raises $150,000 each year to administratively support these programs. These low-cost programs yield high eternal dividends.

Mark A. Smith, Ed.D., is the seventh president of Columbia International University (Columbia, South Carolina).


Training Offenders and Transforming Lives

By Anthony W. Allen, Hannibal-LaGrange University

Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Hebrews 13:3, NIV)

Since its inception in 1858, Hannibal-LaGrange University (HLGU) has been deeply committed to providing high-quality Christian higher education for a life of service to God and society. Over the years, traditional on-campus degree programs have been expanded to include extension and online classes to meet the needs of students.

Recently, the university began to explore additional opportunities for reaching new student populations. Out of this desire to minister to our community, state, and world, HLGU explored the possibility of providing education to inmates within the Missouri prison system. For no other reason than the desire to be faithful to God’s word and remember those in prison, the dream of starting a program of Christian studies in the prison system became a reality. This partnership was modeled after other effective programs, such as the one in the Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary.

HLGU is pleased to sponsor Freedom on the Inside, a Christian studies bachelor’s degree program in partnership with the Missouri Department of Corrections. The Missouri Department of Corrections provides space for classrooms, a library, and offices; it also works to facilitate students’ schedules so they can be in class and have adequate time to do their studies. Enrolled students do not pay for tuition, books, or computers. Since students in the Freedom on the Inside program are ineligible for any state or federal assistance and are ineligible for financial aid, the program is sustained through HLGU’s budget as well as through donations and grants.

This is an incredible opportunity for HLGU to provide education to inmates, many of whom will spend most of their lives behind bars. This four-year course of study equips students to serve as chaplain assistants throughout the Missouri prison system. Each year, HLGU admits 20 students to the program, and we expect our first graduates to receive their diplomas in 2024.

Freedom on the Inside’s vision is to equip students to think biblically, to think deeply, to act justly, and to live as Christ’s representatives in the prison system and the world. When the program started, we had a vision for what we hoped to accomplish, but God is at work in ways far beyond what we could have imagined.

Since the program’s inception, inmates have been led to Christ, baptized, and discipled. As a result, a church has been started in the prison to train and equip other inmates and minister to their community. Correctional officers and instructors say that they are already seeing an immediate and positive effect on the prison population. Students understand the importance of communicating their faith walk to other inmates, correctional officers, and the facility administration.

A primary task of Christian higher education is to help students learn to think Christianly—that is, to approach every issue of life with the intent to understand, evaluate, and respond to it in a manner consistent with normative biblical teaching. Our highest commitment as an academic institution is to educate students to love God with their heart, soul, and mind. Students who enter the program through the prison system will receive the same type of education that our students receive on campus. Our hope and prayer is that once they receive their education, they will be able to serve in important, meaningful roles in ministry in the prison system.

Anthony W. Allen, Ed.D., has served as president of Hannibal-LaGrange University since 2012.


Changing Lives Inside a Prison

By Amit A. Bhatia, Corban University

Imagine yourself stepping into your classroom in a prison. As you begin instruction, the vision that you have turning over in your head is that of Jesus standing in the center of the classroom, singing and dancing and rejoicing over what he has done and is doing in the lives of your Adults-In-Custody (AIC) students. At several points throughout the course of the day, you find yourself compelled to pause your teaching and share with your students, “Jesus is not finished with you. His plan is to conform you to his image, and he fully intends to glorify himself in you and through you. Keep your eyes on Jesus, because he intends to advance his kingdom inside the prison walls.”

This has been my experience since I began teaching in an undergraduate prison degree program offered by Corban University in Salem, Oregon.

God is changing our AIC students. On the first day of class, one student thumped his chest and exclaimed with great enthusiasm, “I am a Corban University student!” As I engaged this student over the next few weeks, I came to realize the full weight of what he was saying. Before, he had been ashamed and unwilling to forgive himself; now, even though he viewed himself as a “convict” in prison, his self-identity was being transformed. He is indeed a Corban University student.

Just past the midway point of our first semester in fall 2019, I asked students to reflect on and share with me what God had done in their lives thus far. Here is a small look at the deeply appreciative responses they gave to me anonymously:

“I am relearning how to use my brain, sweeping out the dust and cobwebs, getting the machine running again. I can’t think of anything more mindless than prison. It makes your brain rot. Like everything else, the mind requires exercise, or it atrophies.”

“Academically, I have been swamped, but it feels good, like I have a purpose in life again. You get this chance to understand how to break God’s word into usable life skills.”

“God is not done with me yet. He is putting me to work, giving me a purpose for his kingdom. My life of freedom may be over, but I am not down and out. Never count God out.”

One of the challenges students face is having been away from formal education and having to relearn things. But the community students are building together helps overcome this challenge. Every week during study hall, students are helping others who are struggling. As one student shared, “With the cohesion that has happened among the students and teachers, we have been able to help each other.”

The fact that Corban’s program is more than just academics — that it provides Christ-centered education — is also notable for the students in the program. One student remarked:

“The chance to earn a properly accredited degree is great and will never lose its value, but the Christian ethics attached to this education are what catapults this program above others. I can’t overstate how important this is, that we should receive a moral education. No other program does such a comprehensive job of meeting our educational needs when it comes to morality and ethics, as well as a degree that will actually count for something in the real world.”

Eventually, we expect that the majority of our students will be released, having become educated and well-equipped contributing members of our society. This opportunity to develop these students to become who Christ intends for them to be is what motivates me to invest in them academically and spiritually. The prison is a mission field, and it is because of Christ’s work in and through these students that his kingdom will advance. I want to join Jesus in dancing for joy at the work happening here. Don’t you?

Amit A. Bhatia, Ph.D., is assistant professor and director of the Oregon State Correctional Institution (OSCI) Extension at Corban University (Salem, Oregon).


Changes for Those Inside and Out

By Robbie Spivey, Lipscomb University

When I first taught a class for Lipscomb University at the Debra K. Johnson Rehabilitation Center in Nashville, Tennessee, it was 2008 and my class was only the fourth to be offered there. To me, it sometimes felt like a furtive experiment, and each week as I took books to the prison, I wondered, “Are we even allowed to do this?” But over the years, about 150 incarcerated (or “inside”) students, at least that many traditional (or “outside”) students, and more than 50 faculty have participated in what is now called LIFE (Lipscomb Initiative for Education). This year, as I serve as director of the LIFE program, I am increasingly aware of how deep the support and wide the influence of this program has become. LIFE is not only allowed, but it is also nurtured by both the university and the state of Tennessee.

The LIFE program’s appeal is partly the promise of transformation — higher education decreases recidivism and offers hope and confidence to the incarcerated student. LIFE classes equip students to address conflict in their lives, practice critical thinking, and set educational and life goals. But everyone who participates in LIFE knows that transformation goes both ways. Everyone who teaches a class, visits as a guest lecturer, or helps set up the stage for graduation experiences transformation as well.

Leanne Smith, associate professor in Lipscomb’s College of Business, speaks for faculty when she says, “Every time I’ve taught at the prison, it has stripped something away that I thought I knew about teaching and caused me to rethink it. It takes me out of my comfort zone every time I go through checkpoint and hear the clang of the bars rolling shut behind me. I quickly come to love the women in my classes and to appreciate how thirsty they are to learn. … I never fail to walk back out through those clanging bars without knowing that I have been the real student in this scenario.”

Participating in LIFE makes Smith a better teacher: “I am more sensitive to the diverse backgrounds of all my students,” she says. “Any and all of them have their own personal sacrifices in pursuing their education. I may never know the whole of their stories, but I am holding keys of understanding that can make a powerful impact on future chapters. And when traditional students from campus capitalize on the opportunity to come to prison and sit beside inside students, it’s incredible to see the understanding in their eyes change, to see how they come to realize that education is truly life-changing.”

And many outside students have acted on that realization. Amanda Martin cites her experience in LIFE classes as informing her career choices, which now center on a desire to address the negative circumstances that increase a person’s chance of incarceration. After her LIFE classes, she spent summers working on criminal justice reform in Uganda and with low-income clients on civil legal issues in Nashville. When she graduated law school, she worked to reduce poverty and unemployment by increasing economic opportunities in disadvantaged areas.

Martin now directs the Office of Neighborhood, Community and Government Relations at Lipscomb, developing relationships with government partners to financially support the LIFE program. For two years, the state of Tennessee has provided direct funding, allowing LIFE to double its enrollment. Martin says, “The LIFE program not only takes our courses to places we never imagined; it allows us to partner with others who share our passion for transforming lives through education.”

The inside students in the LIFE program tell us that Lipscomb brings light to a dark place, but I hope they know their light shines bright on Lipscomb’s campus. I hope they know their education is not a closed experiment but a rich, life-giving force that changes the Lipscomb community for the better.

Robbie Spivey is the director of the Lipscomb Initiative for Education (LIFE) program at Lipscomb University (Nashville, Tennessee).