For nearly 15 years, the Saint Louis University (SLU) Prison Education Program has contributed to creating a world where everyone has access to quality and sustainable higher educational opportunities regardless of their involvement with the criminal justice system.
SLU’s Prison Education Program comprises three components: an on-site, fully accredited Associate of Arts degree program for incarcerated individuals and prison staff, a Prison Arts and Education Program, and a College Preparatory Program.
“Our students are more likely to be first-generation college students,” said Julie O’Heir, program director. “Often, this is their first opportunity to experience a high-quality education.”
SLU’s efforts to educate incarcerated individuals began in 2008 when a small group of faculty — inspired by the University’s Jesuit mission — began holding theological studies classes with fifteen incarcerated men at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center (ERDCC) in Bonne Terre, MO. Participating students had the opportunity to earn a certificate in theological studies from SLU.
In 2011, SLU began offering a fully accredited Associate of Arts degree to both incarcerated individuals and prison employees. At that time, SLU was the only on-site program in the U.S. serving both incarcerated individuals and prison staff. The first cohort of students — twenty-three incarcerated men and prison staff — earned their associate degrees in 2015. A special graduation ceremony was held at the prison, where SLU President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D., delivered remarks. Prison staff graduates were also invited to participate in SLU’s midyear commencement exercises.
Today, the program enrolls 40 students — 20 incarcerated people and 20 Department of Corrections employees — every four years. The program includes both for-credit courses through the University’s College of Arts and Sciences and not-for-credit educational experiences. The students receive the same instruction, in the same classes, and from the same faculty members as students enrolled on SLU’s St. Louis campus.
Daniel Smith, Ph.D., associate professor of theological studies, is among the numerous SLU faculty who have taught in the program. He said that the nine weeks he spent teaching for the Prison Program were transformational and one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences he’s ever had as a teacher.
“As a New Testament professor, it was incredibly illuminating to read the Gospel stories through the eyes of prisoners, corrections officers, and other staff of the ERDCC,” Smith said. “Moreover, awareness of how our nation’s prison system affects the lives of human beings who live and work in correctional institutions has also interested me in the growing movement toward prison reform.”
In addition to the associate degree program, SLU founded a Prison Arts and Education Program in 2011. The program provides humanities-based workshops and a speaker series. And since the program is available to the entire prison community, it reaches the greatest number of participants.
Events have included performances by singer-songwriter Will Oldham, guitarist and folk musician archivist Nathan Salsburg, and the Chamber Music Society of St. Louis. There have also been readings by award-winning writers Henri Cole, Alison Rollins and Phong Nguyen. Workshop topics have included yoga, drawing, financial literacy, entrepreneurship and masculinity.
To build upon the associate degree and arts and education offerings, SLU launched a College Preparatory Program in 2016, offering pre-college courses for incarcerated people that help prepare them for future college experiences in prison or upon release. That same year, SLU also began offering its college prep and arts and education programs at the Federal Correctional Institution in Greenville, Illinois, which houses approximately 1,000 adult men in a medium-security prison and 350 adult women in a minimum-security camp. The expansion made SLU one of a few college-in-prison programs in the country working in both state and federal facilities, as well as in two different states.
O’Heir says the skills developed through pre-college and college coursework create a more socially just living and working environment inside the prison, making possible employment opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable. Education also prevents recidivism, with O’Heir noting that no incarcerated person who completed the SLU program has returned to prison after release.
For prison staff, access to education and advancement opportunities in employment remains limited due to few campuses in rural communities, the rising cost of college tuition, and stagnating wages. O’Heir says offering prison employees opportunities for a liberal arts education can transform their lives and benefit the daily experiences of the incarcerated men and women they supervise.
Since its inception, 35 incarcerated individuals and 23 staff have earned an associate degree through SLU. Upon their release, two of those students have received bridge scholarships to continue their education toward a bachelor’s degree at SLU. Both are enrolled part-time and began during the 2020-21 academic year.
“We’ve had a significant number of other alumni who went on to obtain bachelor’s degrees through other correspondence programs while they’re still incarcerated,” O’Heir said. “We have one who earned a master’s degree and started a Ph.D. program and is now at SLU. Two are starting master’s degree programs at SLU in January.”
Most of the 2.2 million men and women incarcerated in the United States did not have access to quality educational opportunities before their incarceration. “Because more than 95 percent of these men and women will return to the community, it is a benefit to everyone to offer them a chance at a high-quality education,” said O’Heir.
By Bridjes O’Neil, Communications Specialist, Saint Louis University