EMU launches first-ever bachelor's degree program for Michigan's only women's prison

Though some private colleges have also begun offering college in prison programs across Michigan Department of Corrections facilities, EMU is the first public university to do so.
Eastern Michigan University (EMU) recently launched College in Prison, the first-ever bachelor's degree program for women in prison at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHVCF) in Pittsfield Township. Though some private colleges have also begun offering these programs across Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) facilities, EMU is the first public university to do so.

"EMU's deliverable is education, and we have a public mission," says Decky Alexander, director of Engage@EMU and professor in Communications, Media, and Theatre Arts. "Education is key to social and economic mobility, and we can provide a tool to facilitate better quality of life for [incarcerated people], their families, and the communities we live in. It would be irresponsible not to do that, given our proximity to Huron Valley."
Engage@EMU Director Decky Alexander.
EMU is able to offer this programming after being accepted into the Second Chance Pell program, which allows incarcerated students to begin taking courses for credit and EMU to pay faculty to teach. EMU has funded the program so far, and will soon receive a $250,000 earmark from MDOC to cover program costs including staffing and supplies such as books and paper for the students. 

EMU's history with MDOC

The College in Prison program is an outgrowth of EMU's previous work with incarcerated or formerly incarcerated students. Programs already in place include non-credentialed courses for inmates, as well as the Returning Citizens Fellowship program. EMU has worked with WHVCF since 2008, when EMU began offering a series of non-credit-bearing courses for incarcerated students, says Meghan Lechner, director of the College in Prison program.

EMU also sponsored a local cohort of a national program called "Inside Out" that brought EMU students from the "outside" to learn alongside incarcerated students.

It was difficult if not impossible for incarcerated students to earn degrees in prison, however, due to lack of funding. 

"They can't leave prison with debts, so there are no educational loans," Lechner says. 
EMU College In Prison Director Meghan Lechner.
That leaves grants as an option, but a wave of federal "tough on crime" initiatives in the '90s took away prisoners' eligibility for national Pell grants. However, in 2020, Congress lifted that 26-year ban with the FAFSA Simplification Act, restoring access to Pell Grants for people in prison. That move paved the way for public and private colleges and universities to begin offering for-credit classes to prisoners. 

Alexander applauds the move to let prisoners apply for Pell grants, saying that post-secondary education is the "single strongest intervention not only on recidivism but on improving [a prisoner's] socio-economic trajectory."

Alexander says taking classes through a public university offers more than credits. The College in Prison program includes helping prisoners apply their degrees once they get out, including help with resumes and work placement.

"In addition to that, now that they're alums, they get networks, access, that whole ecosystem of the university upon release that allows them to leverage other types of connections and opportunities," Alexander says. "What is the point of a public institution but to be an oasis of connection and opportunity?"

COVID delays and curriculum launches

Lifting the Pell grant ban paved the way for college in prison programs, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the launch, since no outside programs could enter the facilities until late in 2022.

But EMU staff were networking with others in a consortium of institutions that wanted to offer classes in prison, spearheaded by Calvin College. Despite red tape inherent to the prison system, last-minute training for staff, and budget limitations, the first 20 College in Prison students at WHVCF began their classes Aug. 28 with backpacks of books and supplies. Lechner says organizers hope to add funding so the program can be offered to another 10 students, for a total of 30.

College in Prison hopefuls had to apply to EMU just like any other student, but that whole process and all initial schoolwork will be done by hand on paper. Prisoners currently don't have access to regular internet services outside of a dedicated email system. If that changes, College in Prison students will have the chance to do more research and coursework online.

"It's old-school, on-the-ground, face-to-face teaching, and EMU does that incredibly well," Alexander says. "And a lot of faculty come to EMU to teach in that way."

Alexander says the goal is to have prisoners finish their degrees while still in prison, but EMU already has support in place if the prisoner is released before finishing the degree.

"There are a hundred variables that could impact their release date, and they could need one more course," she says. "So, if necessary, we can have that person finish their degree on the main campus."

The initial cohort of students had to have an associate's degree, and will earn credits toward a "General Studies" degree.

Beth Currans, an administrator of the College in Prison program and department head and professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at EMU, says that "General Studies" isn't as loose a curriculum as it sounds. EMU staff worked with imprisoned students, advisors, and faculty to find out what students were interested in, and the General Studies coursework will have three main emphases: business and nonprofit management; social work and helping professions; and history and liberal arts.
EMU College In Prison Administrator Beth Currans.
Currans says that incarcerated students want to be financially independent but also to help people. And they don't want to neglect the creative side of education either.

"They're interested in history and literature and creative writing, and other things we know make people's lives meaningful," Currans says. An unofficial fourth emphasis is on social justice and understanding systems and the world around them, she says.

"They want to understand the social structures, and what it is about the world we've created that made it more likely for some of them to end up there," Currans says.

It might seem like an odd fit to have the College in Prison program nested under Currans' department. However, back when non-credit courses were offered at WHVCF years ago, "Introduction to Gender and Sexuality Studies" was one of the most popular classes.

Currans says the College in Prison program and the Women and Gender Studies Department are aligned in having a "social justice mission within the academy" as well.

"It's just different ways of looking at how to make our community a more equitable place," she says.

Quiana L. (name abbreviated to protect her privacy) has been incarcerated at WHVCF for 13 years and says she "jumped at the opportunity" to take classes through EMU.

"Having a degree opens up many doors for you and it's something to be proud of," she says. 
Meghan Lechner and Beth Currans of EMU's College In Prison program.
She's most interested in business classes because she wants to start her own company. But she has another goal as well.

"I plan to inspire others and give hope to them, showing people that you are not defined by your crime or your time. I want to show them that you hold the key to your success," she says.

Jacara M. (name abbreviated to protect her privacy) has taken advantage of numerous educational opportunities while incarcerated at WHVCF. 

"I was sentenced to eight years at the age of 19, and I knew that furthering my education was my only hope I could hold on to in getting my life back on track and reinventing myself," she says. "I have no idea if I would've changed my outlook on life without the encouragement from instructors, opening my eyes to the realization of my full potential. I now know my purpose and who I am destined to be."

Through Jackson College, she earned three associate's degrees and a certificate over four years before deciding to pursue a bachelor's degree from EMU.

"Math intrigues me the most out of all the classes. I enjoy algebra, calculus, accounting, anything that includes numbers," she says.

Once she's out, she hopes to use her mathematical talents to be a business owner who buys, remodels, and then "flips" houses.

"The students are incredible. They have big dreams," Lechner says. "And having more Eagles out and about, that's never a bad thing."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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