May 14, 2021 | LIFE | By Mariel Zech | Illustration by Aida Hasson

For the past four years, Colorado College has been involved in providing education for young incarcerated people through the Liberal Arts in Correctional Facilities (LACF) program. A group of CC faculty teach at the Youthful Offender System in Pueblo (YOS), a medium-security prison where individuals 16-24 years old are typically incarcerated for multi-year sentences.

So far, the professors have taught a writing course, an algebra course, and a humanities course; enrolled students receive guaranteed transfer credit through Pueblo Community College toward degrees at any higher education institution in Colorado. The CC faculty involved include Carol Neel, Mike Siddoway, Beth Malmskog, and Alberto Hernandez-Lemus. 

Kat-Miller Stevens, Jordan Radke, and Paul Adler serve on the Collaborative for Community Engagement working group facilitating incarceration-related activities at CC.  Teaching at YOS is funded by several local foundations interested in educational and humanitarian projects: The PB and K Foundation, the Edmondson Foundation, and the Dakota Foundation.

The benefits of educational programs for incarcerated people are undeniable; numerous studies have shown that higher education programs significantly reduce violence within prisons, while also reducing recidivism rates and helping people secure jobs once they’re released. 

According to a study by the American Correctional Association, which followed 6,560 offenders released in Indiana, the recidivism rate for those who completed a GED is 20% lower than the general population. Additionally, the recidivism rate for those with a college degree is 44% less than for the general population. Recidivism rates decrease as education increases.

Bard College, a liberal arts college in New York, launched the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) in 1999, which is now one of the most extensive prison education projects in the U.S. While national recidivism rates surpass 50 percent, recidivism rates for BPI graduates (who receive a Bard degree) are less than 3%. This program is a great role model for other institutions around the country. 

I interviewed History Prof. Carol Neel, who teaches the Humanities course at YOS. In our conversation, we talked about the power of listening. 

“It is part of the philosophy of the Collaborative for Community Engagement that we answer communities’ needs rather than telling them what they need. Our work is deeply grounded in conversation with the Department of Corrections (DOC) education officers who know what’s needed by individuals who will be returning to the community,” Neel said.

It is important for privileged institutions to have this awareness and dedication to collaboration and listening, rather than going into a situation assuming that they know what’s best. Neel explained, “Whoever we are at CC, all of us experience a level of privilege which is so far out of normal for human history or even in the contemporary world, that we need to do others the honor of actually listening to what they might need.” 

These educational initiatives play a transformative role by creating a dynamic space for incarcerated people to develop skills, interests, confidence, and a richer life. “We’re doing this because education makes a difference in terms of recidivism, but we’re also doing it because we want to approach and recognize the humanity of these people,” Neel said.

The CC campus is about 50 miles away from one of the largest concentrations of correctional facilities on the planet; there are 11 facilities in Cañon City and Florence alone. That, in conjunction with the fact that there are over 2 million incarcerated people in the U.S., is why Neel shared that “we are called to do this by our moment in time and our geographical place.”

Students who are interested in getting involved in similar work should consider joining the Prison Project, a student-run interest group on campus. In the club, students study incarceration, get involved in activism, and potentially teach at a local jail or volunteer at halfway houses. The Prison Project hopes to be resuming in-person meetings this coming fall, just as CC faculty are hoping that they will be able to resume in-person teaching at YOS as well. 

Even if you’re not interested in getting involved with the Prison Project specifically, it’s good to think about other ways to give back to the community. 

“There are ways in which we can take our professional identities out there into the community,” Neel said. “I think CC students need to see that because they will go out there and have professional identities, and they will experience a kind of, I imagine, regret if they can’t make those work in some kind of community engagement.” 

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