College prison program to bring undergrads and inmates together

Director+Mary+Cohen+instructs+the+Oakdale+Community+Choir+at+the+Iowa+Medical+and+Classification+Center+on+March%2C+20%2C+2018.+The+choir+consists+of+both+inmates+and+outside+volunteers.+%28Nick+Rohlman%2FThe+Daily+Iowan%29

NICK ROHLMAN

Director Mary Cohen instructs the Oakdale Community Choir at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center on March, 20, 2018. The choir consists of both inmates and outside volunteers. (Nick Rohlman/The Daily Iowan)

Inmates and University of Iowa students will learn side by side this fall semester at the Iowa Medical & Classification Center.

As a part of the UI’s college in prison program, Liberal Arts Beyond Bars, students from the Iowa City campus will go into the prison to take a seven-week course, One Community, One Book, alongside inmates enrolled in the UI program.

Together, students will engage in a close reading of the 2018 One Community, One Book selection Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship. One Community, One Book is an annual one-credit-hour course offered through the UI Center for Human Rights. This is the first time it will be offered at Oakdale.

“It made sense to me that we take advantage of the two programs that I direct and see how they can speak to each other by talking about incarceration and education and the criminal-justice system,” said UI LABB Director Kathrina Litchfield.

Litchfield, who will teach the course this fall, works as the programs coordinator for the UI Human Rights Center.

The course will be open to 12 Iowa City campus students and 12 LABB students from Oakdale. In order to take the class, Iowa City campus students cannot have committed a felony, must be over 18, have their own transportation, and will be required to take a Prison Rape Elimination Act training.

“This is a unique opportunity, and it’s a bit of a risk,” Litchfield said. “I need to be very, very careful that every student from the university understands just what it is they’re signing up for.”

There are still slots open in the course for interested students, she said.

The LABB program was piloted in the fall of 2017 with a non-credited speaker series in which nine UI professors volunteered to teach introductory courses to 33 LABB students.

RELATED: Oakdale Community Choir, “hope in the face of justice”

In the spring, the LABB program was able to offer numerous classes for credit. The classes included two speaker series sessions, a yoga course, and participation in the Oakdale community choir.

Warden James McKinney said the LABB program has had a cultural effect at Oakdale.

“The impact is you see a lot of inmates who are talking about educational things like the U.S. Constitution, or poetry, or some of the other class topics [as] opposed to typical conversations about who won a basketball game or what was on TV last night,” McKinney said. “It’s really neat to hear the conversations that have changed that way. Overall, the culture of the facility is just a lot more relaxed.”

LABB education coordinator Mark Petterson said he was amazed at how quickly the program has grown.

“It’s moved faster than any program that I’ve been a part of even in this realm of education for underserved populations,” he said. “Usually, it takes years to get projects like this off the ground [but] due to a perfect set of circumstances, it has gone at lightning speed in terms of growth.”

Litchfield said officials hope to be able to one day offer LABB students the ability to earn bachelor’s degrees but to get there, they need to grow the program “sustainably.”

Currently, the tuition of the LABB students is being absorbed by University College, and all of the educators have volunteered their time. Litchfield said that can’t go on forever.

“What’s unique about us is if we can make our program sustainable, we will be the largest public Research 1 flagship university in the country to have a college-in-prison program,” Litchfield said. “We really have an opportunity to make an impact nationally, because the model that we create is something that every public university could adopt if we do it right.”

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