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Augustana Helps Prisoners Pursue Higher Education

Chris Ferman, Augustana Observer
Dr. Varallo, professor of communication studies, in class at the East Moline Correctional Center. (Photos by Chris Ferman, Augustana '23)

This fall, ten men incarcerated at the East Moline Correctional Center took classes to begin pursuing bachelor’s degrees.

Dr. Sharon Varallo is Executive Director of the Augustana Prison Education Program. She says the educational standards are the same for incarcerated students as they are for traditional students.

"So we bring faculty who teach the same courses that they would on campus. They go into the prison and teach there. They [the students] were very busy. We kept the bar high, and they surpassed it."

Public funding for prison education programs was largely cut off by the 1994 federal crime bill. Critics argued that taxpayer dollars should not go to educating people in prison.

But Augustana's program is privately funded—there are no tax or tuition dollars involved. Dr. Varallo again:

"Even if there were [tax dollars], it's about the best way you could use it, because for every dollar spent on higher ed in prison, five dollars are saved in taxpayer money in all sorts of ways. It is far better for this country--far better for families, for neighborhoods, for employers, if we start remembering that people who are incarcerated are people. They have gifts and talents...they're not different."

To celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Day, Augustana will be hosting a virtual panel on Monday, January 17, with members of the Augustana Prison Education Program, as well as alumni of the Bard Prison Initiative the program that Augustana's is based on.

A Netflix documentary, "College Behind Bars," follows a cohort of the Bard Prison Initiative as they pursue their degrees.

Aaryan Balu first set foot in audio journalism at WTJU Charlottesville and WRIR Richmond, and now works as WVIK Quad Cities NPR's Fellowship Host.