Eastern’s Prison Education Program: Dr. Kimberlee Johnson launches a Prison Education Program where incarcerated persons will have the opportunity to earn college credit.

There are about 2.3 million people in prisons all across the country, 95% of which will be released in their lifetime.  But what will happen to them when they go back home?  They’ll need to find jobs, and many employers are wary of hiring people who have served time in prison.  Moreover, by 2020, 65% of all jobs will require some sort of postsecondary education, making it even harder for those who never had or took the opportunity to get a college level education before their sentence to find employment.

Eastern University is looking to help rehabilitate those incarcerated through the new Prison Education Program (PEP).  Dr. Kimberlee Johnson, the founder of the PEP, began wondering how she, along with higher education institutions, could help those incarcerated back in 2014.  “I took a sabbatical to research how a higher education institution could respond to the problems of juvenile injustice and mass incarceration.  Offering what Eastern already does well, education, was suggested by many,” Johnson said.

The process of creating the PEP began in February of 2015.  For the next year and a half, the university paid for market research on what a prison education program would look like and whether or not the university would be able to fund it.  The results of the research were ultimately in favor of beginning the PEP.  At this time, Johnson also assembled a Prison Education Advisory Team of 25 members that included faculty, staff, administrators, board members, alumni, people who were formerly incarcerated, and community stakeholders.

In June of 2016, the University President at the time, Robert Duffett, went to the White House and signed the Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge, which increases the amount of access to higher education for individuals with criminal records.  Now, as of Jan. 2019, Eastern University is working with SCI Chester, a men’s prison 17 miles from campus, and over 200 men are interested in participating in this new program.

The program itself will have three phases.  Phase one is currently operational and provides workshops and seminars that help the men at SCI Chester with reintegration.  Phase two is coming soon and involves what Johnson calls “Inside Out/Learning Exchange courses” in which Eastern students will be able to go to SCI Chester and take classes with those incarcerated.  Phase three will be providing the men with a degree education, and while that step is still in its planning stages, it will offer people with a criminal record tremendous advantages and opportunities.

“I’ve spent time with the men in Chester prison – some forgotten, broken, feeling defeated – and have found that so many want to grow, change, and work on rehabilitation.  And education does make a difference!” Johnson said.  That difference is clear.  When those incarcerated receive postsecondary education, recidivism, or the possibility of a convicted criminal to reoffend, goes down by over 43%.

“President Matthews is very supportive of the Prison Education Program and gave us the following Scripture which he felt characterized our work: Isaiah 45:2-3.  Indeed it does,” Johnson said.

Isaiah 45:2-3 reads, “I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron.  I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name.”  These verses are a call for help from those who can, help for those people whom the PEP program aims to reintegrate and reach out to.

If you also feel called to help by taking on an internship or field experience through PEP, or you would like more information about the program, you can contact Johnson through email at prisoned@eastern.edu.

Sources: Eastern University, Prison Policy, Prison Studies Project

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