Written by Catalyst Editorial Staff
Two Colorado College initiatives directed towards volunteerism and education in prisons are gaining momentum. The Colorado College Prison Project, a student organization, recently received clearance to begin volunteering at the El Paso Criminal Justice Center. Separately, CC History Professor Carol Neel will begin teaching classes at a Pueblo prison in mid-February.
The CC Prison Project has long been interested in volunteering at an area prison. That goal is finally being realized after much organization and paperwork. On Tuesday, a group of over 20 students took a tour of the El Paso Criminal Justice Center and will now begin the shadowing and training necessary to become an official volunteer.
After receiving their credentials, the volunteers will be able to run a variety of programming at the center, including educational tutoring, art classes, reading groups, and yoga classes.
“I think this is the most important thing I have done at CC and I know that for many of us it will be the most important thing we do before we graduate,” said senior Abe Mamet, who organizes the CC Prison Project. “This will set us on a lifelong journey toward prison advocacy, prison volunteering, and community stewardship.”
As the Prison Project begins their volunteering, another prison initiative will commence this winter. Neel will begin teaching at a Pueblo prison on Feb. 14. She is teaching students who are a part of the Youthful Offender System, made up of students who were sentenced as adults before they turned 18. Her students in the upcoming class range from 19-23.
Neel’s class is conducted through Pueblo Community College and counts toward an Associates or Bachelor’s degree through that institution. “The staff of both the Pueblo Community College and the Colorado Department of Corrections have been incredible,” said Neel.
The 10-week class will focus on early civilization before 1000 C.E. Readings will include “Gilgamesh,” Plato readings, and “Beowulf.” Currently, the only courses offered in the prison are vocational classes taught by correctional officers.
While Neel’s course is a solid start, she hopes that at some point additional CC professors will join her and that the educational programming will also feature writing and math classes. Neel mentioned recruiting retired CC professors as another possible avenue to grow the program.
She also hopes that eventually there will be an aspect of CC student involvement. However, student involvement becomes complicated due to safety concerns expressed by the Colorado Department of Corrections, which has jurisdiction over the prison.
The other aspect that could catalyze the growth of educational offerings in the prison is a funding source to offer honorariums to CC professors for their teaching. “National best practices suggest that to really make this type of program sustainable, honorariums are effective,” said Neel.
Prison related programming at CC, from the Incarceration Nation exhibit in the IDEA space to panels and speakers, is currently funded through a three-year, $200,000 grant that created the Social Issues in Historical Contexts initiative. However, 2017 is the last of the three years, and there exists no immediate substitutes for the grant.
Many other liberal arts colleges across the nation have similar projects in which their professors teach classes in prisons in addition to their regular course load. The pioneer in this model of prison education is Bard College in New York. However, Neel said CC has a unique ability to affect change because of its geography. In contrast to the East Coast where liberal arts colleges dot the map, the closest peer college to CC that runs a prison education program is Grinnell College in Iowa, 793 miles away.
Although Neel notes that the process for establishing this program was at times arduous, “it is always my belief that when you make human connections, good things come of it.”