Center for Human Rights conference to focus on educating prisoners to help them reenter society

The Role of Transformative Education in Successful Reentry: A Community Discussion

UI Center for Human Rights, University Capitol Center Conference Center– Sept. 8 and 9

Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison — photo courtesy of the City of Fort Madison

The importance of education in helping prisoners rejoin society after serving their sentences is the focus of a conference being hosted this week by the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights at the University Capitol Center Conference Center. During the two-day conference, The Role of Transformative Education in Successful Reentry: A Community Discussion, academic experts, state correction officials and former inmates will examine the role of college-in-prison and other educational programs in helping newly released convicts adjust to life outside a correctional facility.

Kathrina Litchfield, one of the conference organizers, said she hopes it will help people realize the impact educational programs can have in the penal system, and how those programs can be improved.

“Transformation happens when we come to a point when we understand there is someone we want to be, and we know what we need to get there,” said Litchfield, programs coordinator at the Univerity of Iowa Center for Human Rights, which is hosting the event. Litchfield is also co-founder and director of Incarcerated in Iowa, a University of Iowa Prison Partnership Program that connects correction officials with academics studying issues related to incarceration.

There are over 8,000 people currently incarcerated in Iowa’s two prisons and seven other correctional facilities. According to the Iowa Department of Corrections, 73 percent have a high school diploma or its equivalent, but only one percent have any education beyond the high school level.

“Of the 8,000 to 9,000 incarcerated, about 50 reenter their community every week. If we are serious about having safe communities, the influence and access to higher education is imperative in knowing that they have a choice,” Litchfield said. “These education programs are teaching individuals that if they care about something, they have options and they have the ability to create a pathway that wasn’t a consequence.”

All of the state correctional facilities in Iowa are required to offer GED/high school equivalency programs to inmates. The Des Moines Area Community College also provides vocational training programs at six of the facilities. But only one, the Newton Correctional Facility, offers accredited college-level courses.

The growth of online classes has created new opportunities for educating inmates, but those opportunities are not available in Iowa. Inmates in state facilities are not allowed internet access, even for classes.

Even if those restrictions were changed, there remains the challenge of matching inmates with classes that address their needs, Litchfield said.

“When a student comes to the University of Iowa, they are coming with an expectation that they will learn the skills that are required to do what they want to do. The same goes for the individuals going through higher education programs in prisons,” Litchfield said.

“Individuals going through the [college-in-prison] programs will be held to the same standards as incoming freshman. We do not intend to tailor the curriculum. This is an educational program, not a rehabilitation program.”

The conference will feature panel discussions by people who run education programs at correctional institutions, as well as a panel discussion by people who went through those programs while incarcerated. The former inmates will address the impact of these programs on their lives and their reintegration into society.

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“It is important that we look at how we can create a transformative experience that is beneficial to the individual, as well as the community,” Litchfield said. “The incarcerated need to know that they are returning to a welcoming community in order for this program to be successful.”

The conference is free and open to the public. Anyone interested in attending can register for the Friday and Saturday sessions on the Center for Human Rights website.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly gave the University of Iowa Obermann Center for Advanced Studies as the venue of the conference. Little Village regrets the error.

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