Prison Education Summit to help inform growing program in College of Education

Annemarie Mountz
April 03, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Diversity, inclusion and social justice all have an articulated importance in the Penn State College of Education. That is increasingly evident through the actions of the college's faculty, staff and students, who are working hard to bring about social change and realize more student success in diverse populations.

The most recent example of this commitment is the Prison Education and Reentry Summit, held March 29-30 on the University Park campus.

"The College of Education’s mission speaks explicitly about its commitment to both the development and the utilization of human capabilities wherever they exist,” said College of Education Dean David H. Monk. “Prison education programs speak directly to both parts of our mission, as these programs develop capabilities and also focus efforts on making effective utilization of the capabilities that are developed."

The summit grew out of the Restorative Justice Initiative (RJI), founded by Efrain Marimon, assistant professor of education. The RJI is a partnership among University experts and community groups, formed to provide educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals to succeed in society upon their release.

"The Restorative Justice Initiative is important to the entire University, and is particularly important for us here in the College of Education, given how central it is to both parts of our mission," Monk said.

Penn State President Eric Barron agreed. "I’m proud that Penn State is taking initiative in this area and that we can host so many distinguished scholars and experts to provide unique insight into prison education," Barron said. "Pennsylvania spends more than $40,000 a year for each of its over 45,000 incarcerated residents, and yet studies repeatedly show that recidivism rates are high. Education transforms lives, and it is through your dedication and hard work that we can better serve incarcerated citizens as well as all residents of the state."

To further the work of the RJI, Marimon organized the summit to bring together representatives from leading prison education and re-entry programs from around the country; the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections; government agencies; and state and local officials to develop a vision for the expansion of Penn State's Prison Education and Reentry Project. It was designed to help the University set priorities for the next two years and devise a plan customized to the needs of Pennsylvania.

"My hope is to build an alliance, foster collaboration and drive innovation that can support the infrastructure necessary to sustain our program," Marimon said.

Opposition to these programs comes from many sources. "There are critiques from the left, from the right, and from the center. You can say that the idea of providing free college education to incarcerated men and women has something to offend everyone, no matter their political orientation. But, if the challenges inherent in college in prison work are deep and profound, so too are the potential positive impacts of college in prison programs," said Rebecca Ginsburg, director of the Education Justice Project at the University of Illinois.

"College in prison programs are not unequivocally wonderful, positive things. They contain within them the potential for reinforcing the existing patterns and systems of harm and violence. They also contain within them tremendous potential for social change."

A few of the speakers at the summit are living examples of the positive impacts these programs can have.

"We have choice. We can help people become more productive and skilled, and provide them with what will make them a benefit to society, or it will be our fault when they get out and they rob us at gun point, break into our houses, and sell drugs to our kids. That is what I was doing before I got the support and access, and it's what I would be doing now if I didn't have those supports. And that is what we need to realize."

— Abdulla Puckett, doctoral student at the University of California at Los Angeles

"Building more prisons does not reduce crime. When you take people away from everything and put them in cages for years with no resources and with nothing that will help them become a better person, what are they going to do when they get out?" asked Abdulla Puckett, a doctoral student at the University of California at Los Angeles. "We have choice. We can help people become more productive and skilled, and provide them with what will make them a benefit to society, or it will be our fault when they get out and they rob us at gun point, break into our houses, and sell drugs to our kids. That is what I was doing before I got the support and access, and it's what I would be doing now if I didn't have those supports. And that is what we need to realize."

Puckett, who spent 15 years in prison, said upon his release he immediately enrolled in a community college and then attended UC Berkley, where he received support from the Underground Scholars Initiative, a program that provides support for students affected by incarceration, imprisonment and detainment.

Sessions in the summit included information about different models and rationales of prison education programs in other states; funding and sustainability; programming and operations; the importance of wellness, learning and support for incarcerated students; educational tools and prison pedagogy; county re-entry and community partnerships; college certificate programs, career preparation and workforce education; developing re-entry programs in Pennsylvania; and other topics. The first day culminated in a workshop session designed to set a vision for Penn State's Prison Education Program, incorporating information from the day's sessions and involving the various stakeholders attending the summit.

"The summit was more successful than I could have imagined," Marimon said. "It brought together more than 100 people from education and corrections to have important conversations about prison education and re-entry. It also invested key stakeholders on how Penn State can use its size, scope, reach and resources across its 24 campuses to make educational opportunities accessible to justice-impacted individuals and reentering citizens. What’s more, having Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera participate and Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel lead a session helped garner enthusiasm for our efforts to expand prison education and re-entry in Pennsylvania."

The summit ended with a powerful re-entry simulation, where attendees assumed identities of individuals re-entering society and participated in activities designed to simulate the first month of an individual's release. Throughout the simulation, participants completed — or attempted to complete — various tasks to avoid re-incarceration.

By the end of the simulation, roughly 75 percent of the participants had landed back in jail, which mirrors the average in society. A strong contributing factor to their failure was the lack of instruction on how to re-enter society, and how to complete the required tasks successfully. A large majority of the participants experienced frustration, and some desperation, as they tried to overcome what appeared to be odds stacked against their success.

"This is incredibly realistic," commented Divine Lipscomb, an undergraduate student in the College of Education, activist, and justice-impacted student. Lipscomb was first incarcerated in a juvenile detention facility at the age of 14. He later spent time at a state penitentiary. Upon his release, he tried to get help, as he described in his talk on the second day of the summit.

"'Well, the nature of your crime doesn't allow us to help you in this program. Maybe you should go check out this other program,'" Lipscomb recalled being told. And again, "'Oh, wait, you've been out too long, so we can't help you in this program.' So, I stumbled through life. The only thing I did know was I wanted to go back to school. So, I went. The first thing I noticed on my application, 'Have you ever been convicted of a felony?' Of course! Who hasn't? We're from Brooklyn. It's unnatural to ask me that question."

Lipscomb applied to Penn State three times. "They told me I would NEVER … 'Divine, I'm sorry, I advocate for you a lot, but Penn State's never gonna hire you. You have felonies.'" Undaunted, he persisted, and now he is not only a student in the College of Education, but also serves as special projects coordinator for RJI.

Lipscomb was looking for a community of justice-impacted students at Penn State, but couldn't find one. "Where are the convicted felons? This is Penn State. Statistically, there have to be more justice-impacted individuals here. Why can I not find them?" he recounted during his talk. "I wasn't supposed to find them. I was supposed to find Efrain. Efrain was doing something on this campus that no one else was doing. He was impacting lives. He was changing minds. He was introducing education. HE was doing what I was looking for 16 years ago. How could I not be involved with that?"

For more information about RJI, visit online.

Editor's note: Jessica Buterbaugh and Abby Fortin contributed to this story.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 17, 2019