National Reentry Week: Our Visit to SCI-Pine Grove’s College in Prison Classroom

“Education Is the Most Powerful Weapon Which You Can Use to Change the World” — Nelson Mandela

National Reentry Week was April 23-29, during which Pennsylvania Department of Corrections leadership visited a program that history very well may judge has the most effective intervention yet at reducing the likelihood of future crimes being committed by individuals coming through our system.  It’s a program that’s been changing lives since its inception – a program that many of us have completed.  This program is called a college education.

Pennsylvania is fortunate to have four such programs operating in prisons across the state.  On Tuesday, I was joined by the President of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) Dr. Michael Driscoll at State Correctional Institution Pine Grove, where we were honored to sit in on a college class.

The class was facilitated by IUP faculty member Dr. Jamie Martin and we both witnessed and interacted with the students who are participating in the criminal justice 101 class.  I want to acknowledge the leadership of Pine Grove Superintendent Eric Bush and his team, in particular, for their commitment to making this important program successful.

We experienced a learning environment with engaged and inquisitive students seeking knowledge beyond the book.  Dr. Martin shared that the writing submission assignments of the inmate students were more reflective of graduate level work than that of college freshmen.

Perhaps the most impactful moment was when we asked for feedback and advice about this program from the students.  The first words spoken were sincere gratitude for the opportunity, and the simple fact that they were judged “worthy”, in their words, to participate, changed how they thought of themselves.

The students also expressed that learning gave them the hunger to know and achieve more and a belief that they have options.  Hope abounded at last.

We left the classroom shaking the outreached hands of every student inside that prison in the middle of Pennsylvania, buoyed by the experience and resolute in the need to continue providing transformative educational experiences inside prisons. This perhaps is our best chance to reduce recidivism and allow individuals leaving our system to do so with a real chance for a different lifestyle, and as more prepared human beings than when they entered.

 

John E. Wetzel is the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Corrections.

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