Just like every other graduation ceremony, there was a grand display of pomp and circumstance. There were caps and gowns; a visitation room filled with proud family members eager to join the audience. The only thing different about this ceremony is that all of this happened at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center-state prison for men, in the town of Pacific, where 10 inmates seized the opportunity to make history by becoming the first graduates of Washington University’s Prison Education Project.
The graduates decked out in the University’s green and black graduation robe with pride and received Associate of Arts degree a few days before their commencement service from Washington University, St. Louis.
Students of the Prison Educational Project earned their degree by completing 20 courses, taught by Washington University professors across disciplines in the humanities that include:
social sciences, natural sciences, and mathematics (all for free); while serving prison terms.
“We have created this liberal arts environment in the middle of a prison,” Robert Henke, professor, and director of the program said while addressing the Post-Dispatch. “You get your books and it’s Homer’s Odyssey and you start talking about the text. You’re the professors and they’re not criminals, they’re not inmates, they’re college students.”
Henke who doesn’t see the Washington University’s prison education program as a community service project but “a chance to get out of the ivory tower” and find talented students in neglected places “It’s a matter of, ‘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.”
The Prison Educational Project which is funded primarily by Washington University as one of eleven participating programs of national Bard Prison Initiative is administered by the school’s University college continuing education division. Robert Henke also made it known that, when compared to the undergraduates in St. Louis, the students at the prison have an increasing sense of urgency. Their life experiences bring added passion to debates and discussion.
“There is something at stake for the students in the prisons. They work very hard under sometimes not perfect conditions. It’s not the quietest place in the world,” he said.
Of course, there was a commencement address and it was given by Stanley Andrisse, an endocrinologist and assistant professor at Howard University. Andrisse who has been convicted of felony three times and sentenced to 10 years in prison, pursued his education after a mentor from SLU convinced him to do so.
“You have a piece of paper that will open doors that you never imagined would be opened,” he told the graduates as they stared with admiration. “Education is transformative. Use it to rewrite your story.”
However, over 50 inmates apply each year for the available, 10 open spots the program offers. Applicant must have a high school diploma or equivalent, and the application requires them to take an exam and write a personal essay. Students are exempted from prison work duties upon signing up.
The program, which is known as Washington University’s ‘Pacific Campus,’ includes a computer room and study hall hosts a speaker’ series, reading group, and tutoring.
According to graduate Kareem Martin, the program does not only help prisoners feel less marginalized but graduating with an associate degree also made him feel more like a contributing member of society.
“It awakened something in me that needed to be awakened,” he said.
Similarly, Graduate Galler, in the spirit of awakening, also said, “I hope to pursue a masters in social work to be a voice that represents people who have been incarcerated after earning a Bachelor’s.”
Another graduating inmate, Graduate Torey Adams, told news outlet he intends to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree and start a personal business, with focus on entertainment. Speaking of his gains as a Wash. U. student, he said it has taught him how to approach a problem differently and to think things through, critically.
“Most people end up in prison because of bad decision-making skills. You can’t quite see it happening but some way, somehow, it’s teaching you to think critically,” he said.
Among other activities at the historical event, the graduation ceremony also paid its tribute to the memory of Maggie Garb, a Washington University history professor and one of the founders of the prison education program who died last year of cancer.
“My paper always looked like red coloring books when you are done editing them,” Torey Adams, who appreciated that the courses were not watered down for the prisoners, wrote in a letter to Garb after her death.
“It was through you that we knew that Wash. U. did not come to change us, brainwash us, but on the contrary to accept us as we are, but still make us better in the process.”
Graduate Daniel Cobb, who was convicted of armed robbery, also gave a touching speech on the influence Professor Garb had on the prisoners' lives, taking them from ‘society’s outcasts to mighty men’ capable of great achievement.
Cobb, who hopes to complete his associate degree next spring, as he continues to serve his 20-year sentence, believes that because of his education he has been “freed to dream.”