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Thought Leader Uncategorized Higher Education

Changing the Landscape of our Prisons, One Person and One College Course at a Time

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By Katherine D. Perry, Associate Professor of English and Cofounder and Coordinator of the Georgia State University Prison Education Project

Georgia State University’s Prison Education Project at Perimeter College (GSUPEP) was awarded a $210,000 grant in October from the Laughing Gull Foundation to help accomplish its mission to educate people in Georgia prisons.

Led by me and two other Perimeter faculty members, Andy Rogers and Marissa McNamara, the project will use the grant funds to begin two new associate degree programs for students who are incarcerated.

GSUPEP offers new educational opportunities to this underserved and often maligned population, to promote the rebuilding of humanity through college courses, and to change the public perception of crime and its punishments.  GSUPEP is working from models in nearby states, like the Alabama Prison Arts + Education project and the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative where innovation in prison education is thriving in states with similarly high incarceration rates.

Both of GSUPEP’s new degree programs will begin with core classes such as English, history, sociology and mathematics to offer students the first building blocks for their college educations.

We have about 20 faculty members who have volunteered to teach in our program. To participate, faculty must take several levels of training, be willing to travel to prisons in remote locations and teach in non-technology classrooms. Despite this, our teachers say that teaching in prisons offers them opportunities to teach students who are highly motivated and engaged, students who thought they might never be able to earn a college degree.

GSUPEP’s pilot degree program started in 2017 at Phillips State Prison, working in partnership with Common Good Atlanta. Students at Phillips are continuing to move toward their degrees and have created a successful model for other Georgia prisons to follow. Since then, we’ve added pre-college classes at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Walker State Prison, Hancock State Prison and the Atlanta Transition Center, and we will now add two additional degree programs.

Although most of Georgia’s prisons offer vocational education courses, since the mid-1990s many of the traditional college degree programs have vanished.  Since then, the costs of the lack of education, rising mass incarceration rates and fewer educational opportunities for people who are incarcerated have challenged Georgia’s budgets and work-force readiness. GSUPEP is working toward a turnaround for Georgia.  We want to make Georgia a leader in prison education so that all Georgia’s citizens can find meaningful work and live meaningful, productive lives.

As the two-year college arm of Georgia State, Perimeter College is working to meet students where they are, to raise the overall education level of Georgia’s residents, to build a stronger work force and to help all people earn the highest level of education they can—and that includes students in prisons.

America’s South, as it was in the Civil Rights era, can become a leader in prison education, and the Laughing Gull Foundation’s grants are making this possible.

For more information about how important prison education is nationwide, you can learn more from a March 2018 New York Times article at  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/06/opinion/prisons-colleges-education.html.

Katherine D. Perry is an associate professor of English at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College.

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