Bringing higher education to Iowa prisons: University of Iowa conference is kickoff to fall lecture series

Series to take place at Iowa Medical and Classification Center

Jason Rubel, of Marion, speaks at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center commencement ceremony in May 2015. (Submitted photo)
Jason Rubel, of Marion, speaks at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center commencement ceremony in May 2015. (Submitted photo)

Four years after being released from prison, Jason Rubel was invited back to the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville to be the commencement speaker for offenders receiving high school equivalency diplomas.

That’s because education changed Rubel’s life from one derailed by drugs to one focused on helping other people.

“It gave me purpose throughout my incarceration,” said Rubel, 46, of Marion. “I needed to figure out where to take my experience and make it an asset.”

Rubel earned a bachelor’s degree through correspondence courses while incarcerated at state and federal prisons for 10 years after methamphetamine convictions in the early 2000s. He went on to earn his master’s degree in social work and now works as a vocational rehabilitation counselor — helping others with work barriers, including substance abuse.

Rubel is one of several former offenders who will speak at a University of Iowa conference this week titled “The Role of Transformative Education in Successful Re-entry: A Community Discussion.” The conference will introduce Iowa corrections officials and educators to guests who have implemented successful higher education programs at prisons in other states.

The goal is to expand college-level programming in Iowa’s prisons, starting with a UI speaker series this fall, said Kathrina Litchfield, programs coordinator for the UI Center for Human Rights, which is coordinating the conference.

“Education is a transformative experience,” she said.

Inmates who participate in education programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison, according to a research analysis by RAND, a nonprofit research organization, funded in part by the U.S. departments of Justice and Education. Employment after release was 13 percent higher among prisoners who participated in either academic or vocational education programs than those who did not, the study released in 2013 found.

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The conference starts Thursday night with a showing of the award-winning documentary “Shakespeare Behind Bars,” about the theater program in the Kentucky prison system started by Curt Tofteland. The film, at 7:30 p.m. in the UI’s Voxman Music Building Recital Hall, will be followed by a question-and-answer session with Tofteland.

The conference will conclude Saturday night with a talk by Daniel Karpowitz about his book “College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration,” which tells the story of the Bard Prison Initiative, which allows men and women serving time in New York state prisons to earn Bard College degrees.

Karpowitz’s talk, followed by a book signing, is at 7 p.m. Saturday at Prairie Lights Books in downtown Iowa City.

The conference, which includes sessions Friday and Saturday at the University Capitol Centre within the Old Capitol Town Center, is free to the public, but does require registration. To see the full schedule of events and to register, go to: https://uiowa.edu/higheredandsuccessfulreentry/role-transformative-education-successful-reentry-community-discussion.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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