Empowering the Incarcerated through Education

Empowering Through Education: UO's Prison Education Program

A University of Oregon program that provides education to incarcerated Oregonians is expanding with a boost from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, one of the largest supporters 
of the arts and humanities in the United States.

Under the UO Prison Education Program, faculty members and campus students have joined people who were incarcerated for discussion-oriented courses in Salem prisons.

The program developed from the UO Inside-Out Program in 2007, building upon the national program of that name based at Temple University, which brings college students together with incarcerated men and women to study as peers in a seminar behind prison walls. The UO program has expanded to include not-for-credit workshops, book discussions, and distance-learning courses. Hundreds of campus students and more than 1,000 incarcerated people have gone through the program, which has become one of the largest in the nation. 

Program Director Shaul Cohen, an associate professor of geography, says studies have consistently shown that higher education during incarceration allows students to recognize and develop their abilities, helps people find employment, reduces the likelihood of returning to prison, and according to the Rand Corporation, a global policy think tank, makes both prisons and society safer.

For their part, participants say the impact of education can scarcely be measured.

“At no time in my life previously had I encountered such an intense concentration of compassion and empathy in a gathering of people,” says Bobby, an incarcerated participant. “Nothing could be of greater value.”

Classes are offered in geography, English, political science, sociology, environmental studies, philosophy, family and human services, and conflict and dispute resolution. They have also been conducted in partnership with the Clark Honors College.

While the pandemic has introduced new challenges, the future is promising. Due to coronavirus safety precautions, in-person classes have been suspended and technology constraints inside prisons have limited instruction to assignments such as readings and essays.

But a $481,000 boost from the Mellon Foundation will enable the program to offer new educational opportunities to Oregonians in prison.

The funds will support training and instruction for additional educators and will enable the broadcasting of more UO programming on televisions throughout the 14 prisons in Oregon.

The prison education program partners with the Oregon Humanities Center, the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics, and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art to give incarcerated students access to community programs recorded on campus. Through the award, a student who earned a bachelor’s degree through the UO while incarcerated will be hired to manage the TV programming.

With the Mellon gift, educational packets will also be provided to individuals in special housing, including solitary confinement and mental health units, and to those who are too infirm to attend in-person activities.

This expansion, according to Cohen, was developed in response to requests from participants with the hope that these offerings could be a gateway for additional education. He would like the UO to develop a model for colleges and universities nationwide that seek to expand access to educational materials for those who are isolated during incarceration.

Says Cohen: “We see our work as deeply intertwined with a core mission of the University of Oregon: to enhance the social, cultural, physical, and economic well-being of our students, Oregon, the nation, and the world.

“A single day of education or a single course can be a transformative experience for an incarcerated student.”

––By Emily Halnon, University Communications