Higher Education as Reentry: PEP Hosts Panel at Missouri Reentry Conference

On November 3rd, as a part of the Missouri Reentry Conference, Washington University’s Prison Education Project co-hosted a panel on higher education as a form of reentry programming with St. Louis University’s Prison Education Program. The conversation featured Kevin Windhauser, WashU PEP’s Program Director, Jim Brock, WashU PEP’s Alumni Coordinator, Julie O’Heir, SLU PEP’s Program Director, and Courtney Everett, SLU PEP’s Program Coordinator. 

Before launching into descriptions of their respective programs, the panelists began by discussing the qualification of higher education programming as a type of reentry service. In a conference mostly devoted to more traditional reentry services like housing and employment, college-in-prison programs may not initially seem like they fit in, but they have an incredibly clear impact on the lives of their students.

“While higher education in prison is not traditionally considered reentry work, higher education participants have perhaps the lowest recidivism rates of any other reentry programs,” said Julie O’Heir. 

Although neither college’s program considers recidivism to be a cohesive metric for reentry success, both report 0% recidivism rates for their alumni. However, the concept of higher education as reentry support goes so far beyond simple recidivism statistics. Successful reentry isn’t captured by simply whether a person returns to prison, but rather a holistic picture of their quality of life post-release. While just having access to a college degree improves many of these metrics, programs like WashU PEP dedicate a significant portion of their work to explicit reentry services. 

“So we employ a reentry team that is a combination of trained social work staff, folks who have MSWs, folks who have a lot of experience navigating resources for formerly incarcerated people statewide, […] but also crucially, that team includes formerly incarcerated alumni of the program, both of whom are here today[…],” explained Windhauser. “That’s really, really important to our success, having folks who have navigated our program, pursued a degree while incarcerated, have done the work of reentry, have navigated its challenges from a perspective that the rest of our staff doesn’t necessarily have, and they can help our alumni as they come out. So their success becomes future alumni success, and we get a positive loop going that continues.”

Alumni of both WashU and SLU’s programs were in attendance at the conference and on the higher education panel to explain how their experiences in the programs affected them and informed their paths post-release. 

“When you’re incarcerated and you get an A on your assignment, your grandmother doesn’t give you five dollars to go to the store. You’re still incarcerated. You go back to your prison cell; you’re treated like everyone else. So the reward for education while you’re incarcerated is what happens on the inside. Your self esteem begins to change. Your understanding of success begins to change. What you do for fun begins to change. You become more civically engaged. And when you’re released from prison, you take all of those little things with you where you go. […] The benefit of taking education back to those places is that you become a solution to the problem by default,” said Courtney Everett.

Alumni of college-in-prison programs bring their educational experiences with them wherever they go and spread their impact, both inside of prisons and beyond their gates. 

“We often look initially at a higher ed in prison program and think how does this serve the students that are in it, but a huge part of what we do is provide the resources and support that our students and graduates use to serve others,” explained Windhauser.

WashU PEP alumni often become the go-to tutors and advisors for students in other educational programs in their facilities. Once they are released from prison, they form a tight-knit group of alumni who are able to support their newly released peers from the perspective of already having gone through the reentry process and understanding both the struggles and opportunities available to PEP grads.

“You’re gonna hear a lot of stuff about reentry over the next couple of days,” said Brock, WashU PEP’s Alumni Coordinator. “But education, I think, levels the playing field for us and gets us through every situation that life has out there with the support of our WashU community and the SLU community.”

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