Prison University Project brings much-needed education to an overlooked community


Prison University ProjectPrison University Project (PUP), our current Education beneficiary, is an organization that faces substantial resistance: It seems natural to ask why people who are in prison should have a chance at free education when so many are struggling with the ever-increasing cost of higher education.

Jody Lewen, the executive director of PUP, thinks this question should be turned on its head: Rather than being an argument against the education of prisoners, she suggests that it should be an argument in favor of universally available education. It is in prison, where many inmates have slipped through the cracks and had limited chances at education, that she feels an important difference can be made. In 2009, it was found that 70% of prisoners released on parole in California were functionally illiterate. Clearly, this is a segment of society where education has immense power to change lives. 

PUP endeavors to move beyond the dehumanization of incarcerated people. In doing so, they have changed the lives of many inmates, as well as the communities surrounding the men involved in the project. Toby, a 44-year-old student excelling in ethics, sees the project as a chance to give back to the community he took from, and has learned that people who have committed horrific crimes aren’t necessarily horrific people. Ricky, 29, has gained a sense of peace from his studies, and is learning about values and the life skills he feels he was not equipped with before being “thrown out into the world.”

Jahmal, who is serving a life sentence, has developed a profound understanding of the weaknesses in society that result in a high level of incarceration. He argues that some people are not taught to handle conflict in a society in which deadly weapons are readily available, and that “most people are only as dangerous as their society is, and this society’s pretty dangerous.”

The project has vocational aims, and the benefits of preparing inmates to face the world after release are clear. However, the values and critical thinking skills gained by the students are probably equally as important, allowing inmates to enrich their understanding of their societies and individual choices. With the recidivism rate for individuals with degrees being estimated at as low as 10%, it is clear that the Prison University Project is a powerful tool for change, for individuals as well as their communities.