Prison education program reinstated on campus

Brailey Sheridan
Copy desk chief
[email protected]
Inmates file into a small room inside Avery-Mitc

Professor of mathematics Patrick Bahls explains that upon completion of the program 15 inmates will have about 60 credit hours, roughly equivalent to UNCA’s liberal arts core. Photo by: Emily-Ann Trautmann

hell Correctional Institution, sit down and pull out their sta- tistics textbooks. It’s time for class. 
Regine Criser, Patrick Bahls and Scott Walters, along with other faculty and staff members, reinstated the higher education in prisons program at Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution this semester, nearly a decade after UNC Asheville’s first program funded by grants from UNC Chapel Hill. 
“We had a pretty robust program with several faculty regularly teaching courses in various nearby correctional institutes. When the recession hit, the state took a hit funding wise and a lot of the money that was there dried up. So we ended the program and I never had a chance to take part in it at that time, but I knew there were some other folks on campus that were interested in reinstating such a program, foremost among them Regine Criser,” Bahls, professor of mathematics said. 
Now four weeks into the program at Avery-Mitchell, for-credit classes such as Statistics 185 and Language 120 are taught to inmates on a weekly basis. Upon completion of the three-year program, 15 inmates will have about 60 credit hours, roughly equivalent to UNCA’s liberal arts core, to put toward a degree at most four year institutions, according to Bahls. 
“It’s not that we want these folks to forget that they’re in prison, but I think we want to put multiple lenses in front of these folks at the same time and say, ‘OK, yes, you are in prison, but there’s also this other world that you’re a part of. There’s the classroom experience and it doesn’t take you out of the prison but in a sense we’re bringing it to you.’ I think it’s just an additional way of helping refract the light and helping them see the world through a different lens,” Bahls said. 
Inmates must have between three and eight years remaining on their sentences, have no recent violent infractions within the prison, take a math placement test and write an essay to apply for the program, according to Bahls.
“In some sense it’s like a college application. They’ll be writing in response to an essay prompt. I don’t remember the exact wording, but it was something along the lines of ‘What do you give a damn about?’ or ‘What are you passionate about?’ Asking them to kind of show us their passion,” Bahls said. “Why is it they want to be in this program?” 
Planning for this program began in 2015 during a meeting between Walters, Criser and Bahls. Prior to her work at UNCA, Criser volunteered with the Education Justice Project at the University of Illinois. 
“I worked for a program and it was some of the most fulfilling work I had ever done. And so the moment I had to stop it, because I moved away and I moved on, I knew that I wanted to do it again. I learned here that UNCA had been involved in the past and I heard about people who are trying to start it back up. I connected with Patrick Bahls and with Scott Walters who both were trying to get something started and I said ‘OK, let’s join forces and let’s try to be really strategic about it,’” said Criser, assistant professor in the languages and literature department. 
Soon after the initial meeting, the group reached out to Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution about the possibility of offering classes. Criser said while the institution’s administration showed interest, they needed to find a way to pay for classes. 
“It slowly became clear, if we want to offer courses so that students on the inside actually earn credit that is transferable to other institutions, we need to find ways to pay for those credits,” Criser said. “The academic currency is credit hours.” 
The process of finding funding roadblocked the group for almost two years, but in October 2018, the group finalized a three-year grant totaling about $190,000, according to Bahls. The grant goes toward funding the program itself, as well as supplies and professor compensation. 
Until funding was secured, several professors volunteered at Avery-Mitchell to build connections between the university and the institution in hopes the program can carry on in three years with the help of new grants. 
“We’re hoping to secure additional funding to fund the program perpetually beyond the initial three years. Ideally we’d love to try this curriculum out and make sure that it’s successful, solve problems as they arise on the way and be in a position where if we are able to secure additional funding, we can continue this. We do not want to simply go in and say, ‘Hey, it’s three years, OK, we’re done,’” Bahls said. “We want to cultivate a longstanding relationship.” 
Walters, a professor of drama at UNCA began teaching in prisons in 1999. He quickly realized the impact of the work he was doing and wanted to do more, he said. 
“I volunteered last winter to teach a no credit class out at Avery-Mitchell just to get the ball rolling again, see if there was interest, have our presence there so that if we applied for the money that was necessary to get this off the ground and we got it, then we would have been there for a little bit,” Walters said.
Walters taught a class on the hero’s journey in film and literature and the human shadow in film and literature last year, and now hosts a 15-person reading group at the institute. 
“Ninety five percent of the people who are in prison will eventually get out. We have a tendency to kind of forget that. They’re going to be our neighbors. They’re going to be people who are with us. And it seems to me that there isn’t enough being done to sort of help them to become different people when they come out,” Walters said. “Education has been shown to have a really, really positive influence on people’s sense of identity and how they fit into the world so that when they get out they are not thinking of themselves in the same way that they did before.” 
With 15 inmates now participating in this three year program, Walters said the group aims not only to educate inmates at Avery-Mitchell, but also to rehabilitate them and give them a sense of worth. 
“Twenty five percent of the world’s incarcerated population is in the U.S., even though we’ve only got five percent of the world population, we have 25 percent of the people who are in prison. It’s crazy and it creates a permanent underclass upon which lots of people are making money and I would really like to have a hand in busting up that aspect of things so that so that maybe we could have a society that is filled with people who feel like they have a purpose and are useful and appreciate it,” Walters said.