Rhodes College
Mellon Innovation Fellowship Program

Prison Education: A Collaborative Experience

Stephen Haynes
Professor of Religious Studies
2015-2016 Fellow

As a Mellon Innovation Fellow, Dr. Haynes utilized the funds and support to explore more carefully about what other liberal arts colleges are contributing to the prison education movement, and developed a pilot Search course at the Mark Luttrell Correctional Facility that has become the basis for a broader program of prison education at Rhodes.

Dr. Haynes’s interest in taking this step toward developing a prison education program at Rhodes was piqued in August 2014 when he was contacted by Richard Goode, director of David Lipscomb University’s Lipscomb Initiative for Education (LIFE), which offered for-credit college courses in Nashville area prisons. Prof. Goode reported that the success of the LIFE program at The Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville had led to “a steady flow of letters” from women at the Mark H. Luttrell Correctional Center in Memphis inquiring if a similar program might be made available to them. Goode asked Dr. Haynes to gauge interest at Rhodes for reaching out to inmates at the Luttrell facility (and perhaps other local prisons).

Subsequent research, conversation and reflection led Dr. Haynes to conclude that offering Search in local prisons represented a unique opportunity for Rhodes to 1) engage the broader community in a qualitatively new fashion; 2) develop an innovative learning space for our students and 3) emulate successful community engagement efforts at some leading liberal arts institutions. The program also provided a community-based opportunity to test the College’s claim that studying the liberal arts provides an indispensable preparation for life, regardless of one’s circumstances and goals.

In this sense, the project represented an extension of Rhodes’s commitment to the liberal arts as a unique form of education. It also reflected the College’s commitment to engaging students in a “challenging, inclusive and culturally-broadening college experience” in order “to enhance student opportunities for learning in Memphis.” Finally, there was solid evidence that prison education programs can improve outcomes for inmates and thus benefit the larger community of which Rhodes is a part.i

Dr. Haynes’s preliminary research revealed three interesting facts. First, prisoners’ access to higher education was significantly diminished since 1994, when incarcerated students were excluded from the Pell Grant program.ii Furthermore, restrictions on prisoners’ access to the internet make on-line study difficult. Second, according to The Prison Studies Project at Harvard, there are currently no higher education prison programs in West Tennessee or anywhere in the states of Mississippi or Arkansas. Third, while prison education in the South has been dominated by universities and government agencies,iii in other regions of the country leading liberal arts institutions have led the way.

These include Bard College (Bard Prison Initiative) and Wesleyan University (Wesleyan Center for Prison Education). In addition, a number of national liberal arts colleges are in the process of developing their own prison education programs. One of the organizations supporting this work is the Alliance to Advance Liberal Arts Colleges, which in 2013-14 sponsored a Collaborative Workshop on Prison Education and a Liberal Arts Education for faculty members from Amherst, Scripps, Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Smith, Grinnell and Haverford. Also, Bard College’s Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, launched in 2009, has helped establish programs at Goucher, Holy Cross, Notre Dame and Washington University. Reflecting the growing prominence of these programs, a National Conference on Prison Higher Education has met annually since 2010.

Dr. Haynes’s proposal to pilot a version of the Search program in local prisons was supported by Search Director Geoff Bakewell and together they consulted with Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Rhiannon Graybill, who as a graduate student taught at San Quentin Prison as part of California’s Prison University Project. The Faculty Innovation Program appealed to Dr. Haynes because it would allowed him to continue the planning process in a community of practice dedicated to innovative pedagogy and community engagement.

Two matters in particular required further exploration: First, how could Rhodes courses that are open to inmates have to be revised or adapted? Prison education programs at other liberal arts colleges have found that academic expectations can remain high. The Bard program claims, for instance, that “incarcerated students are held to identical academic standards as conventional undergraduates at Bard College.” The same appears to be true at Wesleyan, where a faculty committee is charged with ensuring that courses taught in local prisons are characterized by the same academic rigor as those taught on campus.

A second question was how exactly Rhodes students would contribute to and benefit from a Rhodes College prison education program. Dr. Haynes’s hope was to create classroom spaces in which traditional students and inmates meet together (so-called “Inside-Out Teaching”). In addition to opportunities for students to learn in a unique community setting, this program inevitably created other student opportunities as well. For instance, Wesleyan’s prison education program offers “volunteer and service-learning opportunities for main-campus students….including serv[ing] as writing tutors and teaching assistants for courses at [local prisons].”


Stephen Haynes
Professor of Religious Studies

Dr. Haynes studies the Holocaust, religion and racism, and religion and literature, along with Jewish-Christian relations, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and religion and higher education.