By Jennifer Johnson
Leading Bible studies in prison? Old news. Coordinating worship services in prison? No problem. But holding college classes in prison—for both inmates and traditional students? Since 2007, Lipscomb University’s LIFE program—short for Lipscomb Initiative For Education—has brought undergraduate students from its Nashville campus to the Tennessee Prison for Women, also in Nashville, to learn everything from conflict management to business communication—and to learn from each other.
“I often quote the old biblical passage about ‘silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give you,’” says Dr. Richard Goode, professor of history at Lipscomb and founding director of the LIFE program. “As an academic community, education is what we have to give, and it’s something the inmates need. But we designed the experience to involve everyone both as a learner and a teacher.”
Goode launched the program with a Judicial Process class—15 “inside” students and 15 traditional “outside” students enrolled for the course, and the traditional students on campus traveled to the prison each week for classes. To qualify for the program, inside students were required to have a high school diploma or equivalent and have a perfect discipline record for at least a year.
“You can get a disciplinary write-up for not having your shirt tucked in properly,” says Kate Watkins, the executive director of LIFE and academic program director of the Doctor of Ministry program. “So a perfect record for a year is a big deal.”
“That first night there were a lot of nerves,” Goode says. “One of the outside students pulled up to the prison, saw the razor wire, and drove back to campus. The inside students were understandably nervous as well. But the professor was remarkably thoughtful at decompressing the situation that first night, and very quickly it became a normal experience for all of us. We almost forgot where we were.”
The original goal was to work with one cohort of inside students at a time, offering each group the opportunity for 18 credit hours. However, Goode and his team realized early in the process they didn’t want to walk away from these promising students after just a few classes, so they began exploring what it would take to help the women earn an associate degree—a degree Lipscomb didn’t offer at the time. That original group graduated with their degrees in December 2013.
Today, the program has expanded to offer either a Bachelor of Organizational Leadership or a Bachelor of Integrated Study degree, with several groups of inside students progressing at different rates—and with outside students continuing to learn alongside them.
“It’s impacting both groups,” says Watkins. “Some outside students think they have the world figured out, and then they encounter other voices and perspectives. I’ve seen friendships emerge, with some even becoming ‘extended family’ and staying in touch long-term.”
Lipscomb offers an educational test that measures—and gives college credit for—competency in specific areas to both inside and outside students. The traditional outside student earns, on average, 12 credits through such a test, but the students accepted for the LIFE program earn 27 to 30.
“Many of these women were remarkably gifted as teenagers, but they made bad choices and ended up in the prison system,” Goode says. “Now they’re getting a second chance to use their gifts in productive ways.”
In addition to the courses for college credit, Lipscomb also offers workshops at the prison in a variety of subjects including Shakespeare, songwriting, liberation theology, art appreciation, and more.
“We’re exposing these ladies to professional instructors, good literature, and critical thinking skills,” Watkins says. She hopes they will also be able eventually to offer a master’s degree option.
“We’re strong advocates of education for all the women there, even those who will never live on the outside,” she says. “When you bring those opportunities and participate in each other’s lives, it changes the culture of the prison and it changes every student.”
Be sure and read how life changed completely for one of the Teachers in the LIFE program. See “Seeking a Justice that Transforms” by Preston Shipp.