It was a graduation ceremony like most others, featuring a grand display of pomp and circumstance. The graduates wore caps and gowns, and proud family members filled the audience. The only unusual aspect of this ceremony was that it took place at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in the town of Pacific, Missouri.
The commencement service celebrated the ten inmates who had made history by becoming the first graduates of Washington University’s Prison Education Project. The graduates, proudly decked out in the university’s green and black graduation robes, all received an associate of arts degrees from Washington University in St. Louis.
Washington University provides most of the funding for the Prison Educational Project, which is one of 11 programs in the national Bard Prison Initiative. The program takes place at the university’s so-called Pacific Campus, which includes a computer room and a study hall. The university also sponsors a speakers’ series, a reading group, and tutoring sessions.
To receive a degree from the Prison Educational Project, a student must complete 20 courses across disciplines such as the social sciences, natural sciences, and mathematics. “We have created this liberal arts environment in the middle of a prison,” Professor Robert Henke, the program’s director, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He gave an example of a course on Homer’s Odyssey. He noted that a professor needs to simply “start talking about the text” like in any other class. To him, the students are “not criminals, [and] they’re not inmates; they’re college students.”
Henke sees the program as more than a community service project; it is also “a chance to get out of the ivory tower” and to find talented students in neglected places. He said, “Let’s find really excellent students. Let’s go beyond the normal confines. Let’s look for excellence in different places, in some surprising places. It’s not social work. It’s not pity.”
By comparison to the undergraduates at Washington University’s St. Louis campus, the students at the prison have greater urgency, Henke added. He also found that their life experiences added passion to classroom debates and discussions. “There is something at stake for the students in the prisons. They work very hard under... not perfect conditions. It’s not the quietest place in the world,” he said.
The commencement address was delivered by Assistant Professor Stanley Andrisse, who is an endocrinologist at Howard University. Andrisse was convicted of three felonies and sentenced to 10 years in prison, but while there, he pursued his education after a mentor from Saint Louis University convinced him to do so. He now runs the From Prison Cells to PhD program. “You have a piece of paper that will open doors that you never imagined would be opened,” Andrisse told the graduates as they stared with admiration. “Education is transformative. Use it to rewrite your story.”
Over 50 inmates apply each year for the program’s 10 open spots. Applicants must have a high school diploma (or equivalent). The application includes both an exam and a personal essay. Students in the program are exempted from prison work duties, and the courses are free to attend.
Kareem Martin, who just received an associate’s degree, said that the program helps prisoners feel less marginalized and that he now feels like a contributing member of society. “It awakened something in me that needed to be awakened,” he said.
A graduate named Harvey Galler spoke on the spirit of awakening: “I hope to pursue a master’s in social work [and] to be a voice that represents people who have been incarcerated.”
Another graduating inmate, Torey Adams, told the Post-Dispatch that he intends to earn a bachelor of arts degree and start an entertainment-focused business. He said that the university program has taught him how to approach problems differently and how to think critically: “Most people end up in prison because of bad decision-making skills. You can’t quite see it happening, but some way, somehow, [the university classes are] [JP9] teaching you to think critically,” he said.
The historic graduation ceremony also included a tribute to the memory of Professor Maggie Garb, who co-founded the program. Garb died of cancer last year. In a letter written to Garb after her death, Adams wrote, “My papers always looked like red coloring books when you were done editing them. ... It was through you that we knew that Wash. U. did not come to change us [or] brainwash us, but, on the contrary, to accept us as we are—but still make us better in the process.”
A graduate named Daniel Cobb, who is serving a 20-year sentence for armed robbery, gave a touching speech in which he extolled the influence of Professor Garb on the prisoners' lives. Cobb said that Garb had taken “society’s outcasts” and turned them into “mighty men” who are capable of great achievement. Cobb, who hopes to complete his associate’s degree next spring, opined that, because of his education, he has been “freed to dream.”