Program Highlight #2: Prison Education Partnership Program (PEPP)

Mississippi Valley State University, an HBCU located in Leflore County in the Mississippi Delta, recently unveiled its HEP program, the Prison Education Partnership Program (PEPP), in which classes are anticipated to start in the Fall 2022 semester at two men’s carceral facilities. A team of two administrators and three faculty members (two in criminal justice and one in history degree programs) worked for some time to identify area prisons that would be most receptive to starting a program and to ascertain the interest of MVSU faculty in participating as program instructors. We enjoy tremendous support from our partnering institutions: in one, the warden is a criminal justice alumna who is extremely supportive of the effort. In the other, the warden and other staff members are also MVSU alumni who are anxious for us to start.  

Furthermore, all of the faculty members and administrators who worked on this team have taught or volunteered in prison courses and/or been active in restorative justice and research in incarceration policies for years before this effort. Participation in the Southern Higher Education in Prison Collective and the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison Zoom meetings and conferences was extremely helpful in preparing staff to deliver the program, which is providing a path to bachelor’s degree success – at this time the only institution in the state offering this opportunity. Moreover, the articulation agreement between MVSU, a SACS accredited institution, and the other higher education institutions in the state will assure full transfer of any credits earned in our program to any other institution should a student elect to study at a different university in this state or beyond when he leaves. 

We are now in the process of determining which students are set to continue their education with us, collecting their transcripts and assisting them with their financial aid applications. This involves bringing in our University College, Financial Aid and Admissions Offices, who are all working over this summer to get us started. We are also preparing training sessions for our prospective faculty, who will be teaching face-to-face courses supported by other instructional methods (Zoom, pre-recorded lectures, etc.) that will work best for our students inside.

While working on our successful Second Chance Pell application over this past year, we met on several occasions in person with staff and prospective students at the two selected institutions. During these meetings, prospective students also filled out surveys regarding their educational backgrounds and ideas for program emphases, leading us to offer business administration, computer science, and engineering technology as our inaugural degree programs. (We will also offer general education courses toward any bachelor’s degree.) The students asked many questions during these meetings; they are excited to get started, as are we! As one prospective student shared, “we’ve been hoping and waiting for something like this!”

We look forward to sharing more about our program’s eventual successes!

This Program Highlight was written by Kathryn Green, a member of the Southern Collective and a Professor of History of Mississippi Valley State University.

Concerns of an incarcerated student and why we have to connect with and inform people on the outside that the ones who’ve made the commitment to stay out rarely get a chance at getting out

Southern Collective Blog, Guest Writer 1 – Tut M. Tut.

Buisness Administration Major. Graduate of Dyersburg State Community College. Currently pursuing a Bachelor’s with Lane College. Participant with the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative.

In the course of living, we all hear the statement “the only thing that’s constant is change.” While doing time and striving to take advantage of the things that are considered to be avenues of rehabilitation – i.e, programs, vocational classes, higher education, etc. -, one of the many psychological/emotional struggles that you encounter is the reality that the general public has very little faith in the ideas that change and growth applies to incarcerated people just as it applies to them. In here, your day to day reality is plagued by the possibility that irrespective of what you do now and have done consistently for years, the state and all of its constituents receive you according to who you are in the midst of criminal patterns or a single criminal act. When it comes to incarcerated people it’s as if natural development, maturity, and moral growth are not on the table.

Consider the parole board; in the course of my time in prison, I’ve made it a point to speak with dozens of people who’ve had their cases reviewed by the board although I personally don’t have a date. In certain instances, I’ve seen that a man goes up for parole with no violent extensive disciplinary history, an active record of participation in rehabilitative programs, a record of being college education, no ties to security threat groups, and decades work of time served on his sentence coupled with family and community support. On the other hand, I’ve seen someone go up with a recent violent disciplinary history, as an active member of a security threat group, with no education or trade skills beyond a G.E.D., very little time served in the Department of Correction, and no record of participation in rehabilitative programs.

Lo and behold, to the wonder of the incarcerated population, the man who is seemingly destined for recidivism is subsequently given the opportunity to go home to his family and live within a society that records indicate he’ll clash with. I write of this not to express disdain for the blessing certain people receive, but in contrast I wish to highlight that worthy people are being denied blessing that they would truly appreciate in word and deed. In the state of Tennessee, there is no set standard or criteria for who’s granted parole. It literally hinges upon the emotion state of the parole board members at the time that they make their decision. I’m certain that they would deny this claim, but I dare someone to investigate the hearings they they conduct just to ascertain the resistance that is put up and therein will lie your answer to the truth of my claim. I’m also sure that the seriousness of the charges will be put forth to counter my claim, but I’ve seen drastically different decisions applied to individuals with the same changes. At times a more serious offender who shows a more acute lack of rehabilitation is granted parole as opposed to a lesser offender. All of the things I’ve seen show that parole and the method that the board applies when considering offenders is botched.

Unfortunate is the fact that the state has yet to recognize that the best course of action for determining who needs a chance at release or sentence commutation is through the development of an agency with learned professionals who can apply expertise in the identification of offenders who have rehabilitated to the extent of having a very high likelihood of maintaining in society without conflict with the law. Furthermore, the actual nature of a person – character, natural disposition, and beliefs – must be ascertained by way of reliable individuals who’ve been in constant close contact with an offender. The judging of incarcerated people by those who’ve never set foot within a correctional institution needs to be stopped. The making of criminal justice laws without input or communication with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people is also just flat out stupid. If lawmakers want to know how to stop crime they must humble themselves and begin to interact with those who fully understand the worldview of one who has carried out criminal patterns to the extent of being caught.

Program Highlight #1: Tennessee Higher Education Initiative (THEI)

The Southern Higher Education in Prison Collective blog will feature regular posts highlighting key terms in HEP work, writing by guest bloggers, and stories about member organizations within the collective and their work. This post looks specifically at the member organization, THEI. 

The Southern Collective is composed of thirteen states with several partners in each state. One of those states, Tennessee, has three collective member organizations: Lipscomb Life Program, Rhodes College, and Tennessee Higher Education Initiative (THEI). A primary goal of this blog is to highlight specific programs and amplify the work each does. This post takes us to Nashville, Tennessee, home to THEI. 

Founded in 2011, THEI has a mission to disrupt systems of harm, and create opportunities for autonomy and success through education, support and advocacy with and for justice impacted individuals.THEI realizes its mission through three portfolios:  Academic Programs, Student Success and Re-Entry Services, and Policy and Practice.

Academic Programs

THEI partners with three prisons across the state, and five degree-granting colleges. 

LocationFacility Institute of Higher EducationDegree Program 
East TennesseeMorgan County Correctional ComplexRoane StateTransfer Program (A.S.), General Humanities
Middle TennesseeTurney Center Industrial Complex (TCIX) Nashville State Community College (NCSS)

Belmont University
A.S., Business Administration OR Political Science

B.B.A., Business Administration
West TennesseeNorthwest Correctional Complex (NWCX)Dyersburg State

Lane College
A.S., Business Administration

B.A., General Business

Student Success & Re-Entry Services (SSRS)

The SSRS portfolio provides opportunities for students to receive support and engage in education beyond academics. SSRS seeks to provide incarcerated students and free world alumni with opportunities for self discovery, skill-building, access to information, and civic engagement through workshops like financial literacy, entrepreneurship, digital literacy, and through community groups like our Student Leadership Council and our Alumni Network.

Additionally, the re-entry team supports students prior to and post-release, including re-entry planning, parole preparation, service provider referrals, advocacy, student loan rehabilitation, and providing tangible resources post-release like laptop computers and gift cards. Communication with students starts a year prior to release to plan and prepare for the transition from incarceration, and continues post-release through follow up case management and the THEI alumni Network.

Policy & Practice

The Policy & Practice Portfolio advances THEI’s mission by engaging in systems change aimed at impacting policy & practice in the state of Tennessee and the southern region. We do this by centering the expertise of currently and formerly impacted students & HEP program providers in our analysis of state, regional, and federal policy efforts. In 2019, THEI launched the Tennessee Prison College Coalition (TPCC) with support from ECMC Foundation & the Laughing Gull Foundation to build infrastructure with a statewide collective of agencies and organizations representing higher education, workforce development, and corrections committed to widening the path to postsecondary access for all incarcerated Tennesseans.TPCC is currently working to create a program quality indicator tool for HEP programming, develop a plan to aggregate and disseminate data relative to HEP program effectiveness, and create a HEP-focused professional learning community. The goal of TPCC is to build infrastructure with a statewide collective of agencies and organizations representing higher education, workforce development, and corrections committed to widening the path to postsecondary access for all incarcerated Tennesseans.

It should be noted this post is not an exhaustive list of the work THEI does. It is meant to give a snapshot of the organization. If you are interested in learning more about THEI, you can access their website here