Kevin Hammerschmidt is a Prison Education Project (PEP) alumnus and current University College student. He is an advisor and consultant for the PEP Alumni Program, a group that provides reentry support to PEP students as they transition back to the community. He is also a scholarship recipient in the Washington University Scholars in Arts & Sciences program. Kevin graciously took time out of his incredibly busy schedule as a full-time student with a full-time job to speak with us about his involvement with PEP, equity and inclusion in education, the COVID-19 pandemic in prisons, and more.
In what ways are you involved with PEP?
I have helped provide information in the reentry resource guide. I consult with staff as well as newly released individuals. I provide information and financial assistance (i.e., clothes, food, phone) to individuals that reenter society. This assistance is not just provided to those in PEP. There are individuals I have built long-term relationships with, and they have no one to support them on the outside. It is those who are most vulnerable to reentry that I assist in this way.
In your own words, what does equity in education look like?
Equity in education is a measure in achievement, fairness, and opportunity in education. It exemplifies fairness in education. No matter an individual’s circumstances or condition, these should not interfere with their academic success. Even the most impoverished individuals are excellent students, but their ability to compete at the same level as those who are financially stable is lowered by their inability to have the materials needed (i.e., internet, computer, printer). The next part is inclusion. This is a comprehensive standard that applies to every student in a certain education system – equal rights and fairness to all (gender and otherwise) who seek an education. The quality of life for a student means everything when it comes to being able to perform at a high level.
From your perspective as an alumnus, what are the challenges you see PEP and other higher education in prison programs facing, and how do we start to overcome them?
I hope I am wrong, but I see financial support being the overall issue if a system is not put in place to fund PEP in the long-term. We cannot play this by ear one year at a time. We need a strong system in place. PEP is such a valuable community outreach program to prisoners.
In sum, I see PEP as the kindest gesture the University offers to those less fortunate.
I have seen and experienced myself men that excelled and have a better quality of life with this program in place. The other, in short, is getting the MDOC [Missouri Department of Corrections] on board at a more personal level. PEP is not in the prison system to make the prison look good. It is there to assist men in reentry. It is the best system in place for crime prevention and public safety.
There are a lot of conversations happening in higher education institutions about how to make colleges and universities more diverse, inclusive places. How do you see this applying to both PEP and WashU?
The most beautiful aspect I have experienced in WashU is the diversity. We have individuals from all walks of life who intermingle and support each other. Fairness is of the utmost importance. I would like to see more programs that bring together campus students and PEP UCollege students.
WashU constructing a program like PEP is a wonderful step in the right direction in not excluding anyone from a higher education.
How do you hope to see PEP develop and expand over the next 5-10 years?
It will be hard to try and expand into other prisons; however, buildings and additional space to have more students at MECC [Missouri Eastern Correctional Center] would be a great start. I believe WashU should offer paid positions to find long-term staff to work with the reentry department. This is a valuable service we offer to newly released students and individuals.
You are a member of the PEP Alumni Program. Tell me a little more about this program and its goals/mission.
We provide a valuable service to men released from prison. The prison system lacks a lot of resource information that frankly makes it impossible for a person’s successful reentry that has no or lacking support. The PEP Alumni Program offers that service. We do a lot when it comes to offering Missouri citizens crime prevention and public safety services. We allow newly released individuals to know there is help for them, and this in turn provides hope and prevents additional crime that can surface for someone who does not know where to turn for help.
Tell me about your perspective regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in prisons and some of the advocacy work you have been involved in related to this.
MDOC isn’t doing enough. Men in prison cannot even visit their family, but staff fails to wear masks and surgical gloves, spreading the virus among the prison population. Safety of the prisoners is most important. The medical services in prison are overwhelmingly horrible, understaffed, and unprofessional in most instances. Medical staff that hold true to their Hippocratic Oath never stay long because of the mistreatment they witness.
What can we (whether that is PEP, WashU, the state of Missouri, or the United States) be doing better? Feel free to talk about this within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic or more broadly.
In a nutshell, bring back the Pell Grant for prisoners. The separation of race and people must stop in our country. The rich are not more important than the poor. White is not better than Black. We are all human beings and all deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Fairness comes to mind, and the “leave no man behind” mentality needs to be practiced in our society. Hate and anger serve no conducive role in making the world a better place.
In addition to all the work you’re doing, you are also a full-time UCollege student. How have you found the transition to remote learning since the start of the pandemic?
Once I was able to navigate in Canvas, I have learned to like it. Many tools are provided to learn each aspect, although there are a whole lot and are very intimidating when first starting. My computer skills were lacking to say the least. In less than 6 months, I am very efficient with a computer now. The staff and students at WashU have made my transition very easy. As Barbara Baumgartner says, “be patient with yourself;” that has boded well for me. I do way better in the classroom setting, so I hope to get back to that in the near future.