A University of Oregon program that provides education to incarcerated Oregonians is expanding thanks to funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a supporter of the arts and humanities in the United States. Under the UO Prison Education Program, faculty members and campus students join people who were incarcerated for discussion-oriented courses in Salem prisons.
The program developed from the UO Inside-Out Program in 2007, builds upon a national program of the same name 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 programs. More 1,000 incarcerated people have gone through the program, making it one of the largest in the nation.
Shaul Cohen, the program’s director, is an associate professor of geography. He says that studies have consistently shown higher education during incarceration helps students find employment, reduces the likelihood of returning to prison, makes both prisons and society safer. For their part, participants say the impact of education can’t 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.”
The program offers classes in geography, English, political science, environmental studies, philosophy, family and other topics. They have also been conducted in partnership with the Clark Honors College. While the pandemic has introduced new challenges, the future remains 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. Yet, the program goes on.
A $481,000 boost from the Mellon Foundation will enable the program to offer new educational opportunities to incarcerated Oregonians. The funds will support training and allow for additional educators as well as the broadcasting of more UO programming to televisions in Oregon’s fourteen prisons. The program gives incarcerated students access to community programs recorded on campus. Student’s have the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree through the UO while incarcerated and potential job opportunities.
With the Mellon gift, educational packets will also be provided to individuals in special housing, including solitary confinement and mental health units, populations often ignored. Cohen says “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.”