Public Safety

University of Iowa hopes to launch college-in-prison program

Offenders at Coralville center are part of fall speaker series

Brian Farrell, Lecturer in Law at the University of Iowa College of Law, speaks to a group of 33 offenders at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Brian Farrell, Lecturer in Law at the University of Iowa College of Law, speaks to a group of 33 offenders at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CORALVILLE — The freedom of speech isn’t just a Constitutional right guaranteed to American citizens; it’s a human right — one of 30 — declared by the United Nations in 1948 after the Nazi regime was defeated.

“World War II marked the egregious situation of a country killing its own people and claiming it was legal,” said Brian Farrell, a University of Iowa law professor who focuses on international law, criminal law and human rights. “The Nazi state operated under an emergency policy to take rights away.”

Students in jeans and gray or navy blue T-shirts and sweatshirts nod, one pulling a pen from behind his ear to take notes and another referring to blocks of text he highlighted before class. The 33 men in this class are offenders at the Iowa Medical & Classification Center (IMCC) in Coralville and this class is part of a fall speaker series on topics including World War I poetry, religion, human rights, civil liberties, yoga and job interviews.

Kathrina Litchfield, programs coordinator for the UI Center for Human Rights, planned the series and hopes it can grow into a college-in-prison program in which offenders can earn or finish college degrees.

Improving their odds

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.

“I want to be something more than this charge,” said Ryan McKelvey, 31, who is serving time for third-degree sex abuse out of Polk County. He decided to sign up for the fall speaker series because he sees education as critical to his success outside of prison. “With education, there is identity.”

Since 1994, prison inmates have not been allowed to seek federal Pell grants for college classes, but the administration of President Barack Obama implemented the Second Chance Pell Grant program in 2016 to enroll about 12,000 offenders in 67 college and university programs with federal money.


The UI isn’t part of the pilot, but Litchfield and her colleagues will be watching the experiment.

“The hope is that evidence will show that Pell grants for incarcerated students are a sound investment, and college-in-prison programs nationwide will be able to make the grants available to their enrolled incarcerated students,” Litchfield said.

Program development

Bard College, a private college in upstate New York, started awarding college degrees to incarcerated students in 2005. Now the largest college-in-prison program in the U.S., the Bard Prison Initiative enrolls nearly 300 incarcerated men and women and offers more than 70 courses each semester, according to its website.

Litchfield and her colleagues have been working with Bard to develop the UI program.

“We’ll be problem-solving together how to matriculate students, provide accreditation toward a degree or complete unfinished degrees as transfer students, provide for costs, add teaching at Oakdale (IMCC) to professors’ course loads, make tuition accessible, provide for college-ready instruction, etc.,” she said.

The UI program has support from the top; UI President Bruce Harreld spoke to the students on Sept. 25 about learning through discussion and he plans to return for a banquet and certificate presentation on Nov. 20.

Class is in session

Farrell’s lecture Monday focused on how the declaration and policing of human rights have helped reduce violence in the world. He adapted the class from one he gives to undergraduate students as part of his Introduction to Human Rights course at the UI.

Iowa Medical & Classification Center students asked questions and pushed back, noting occasions when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wasn’t enforced.

“Even in 1948, when they came up with it, we still had Jim Crow laws,” Asa Winters, 28, said after class, referring to state and local laws that allowed segregation until 1964. He also thinks about President Donald Trump criticizing NFL players for using their freedom of speech by kneeling during the national anthem.


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“We have a president who goes out of his way to talk about a man as if he’s doing something wrong,” said Winters, who is serving time for first-degree robbery out of Black Hawk County.

Winters is one of three black men in the class, or about 9 percent of total enrollment. Blacks make up about 16 percent of Iowa’s prison population. Winters said some people may have been deterred from signing up for the class by the requirement students have their high school diploma or general equivalency diploma — or GED -- or be working toward a GED.

“I see it as an opportunity to do something different in my life,” Winters said.


Here is a look at the complete University of Iowa fall speaker series schedule at the Iowa Medical & Classification Center in Coralville:

— Sept. 18 — “Demystifying Higher Education,” by Dan Clay, dean of the UI College of Education.

— Sept. 25 — “Learning Through Discussion,” by UI President Bruce Harreld.

— Oct. 2 — “First World War Poetry,” by Florence Boos, UI professor of English.

— Oct. 9 — “War, Justice and Human Rights,” by Brian Farrell, law lecturer and associate director of UI Center for Human Rights.

— Oct. 16 — “Civil Liberties & Civic Education,” by Jason Harshman, UI assistant professor of social studies and global education.


— Oct. 23 — “The Job Interview,” by Ken Brown, dean of UI undergraduate business program.

— Oct. 30 — “Yoga, Yoga Nidra and the Cultivation of Awareness,” by Fannie Hungerford, UI instructor in theater.

— Nov. 6 — “Motivation for Life,” by Mitch Kelly, UI professor of education.

— Nov. 13 — “Interpreting Genesis,” by Jay Holstein, teaching chair in Judaic Studies at UI.

— Nov. 20 — Certificate ceremoney and banquet.

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