Student Programs

Prison Education Program


“If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country…one goes to the unprotected—those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most!—and listens to their testimony.  Ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it.

—James Baldwin

Despite the fact that United States houses just about 5% of the world’s total population, it has in its custody at any given time almost 25% of the world’s prison population.  This amounts to around 2 million people who are confined within state and federal prisons, local jails, juvenile facilities, and immigration detention centers.

The Western Michigan University Prison Education Outreach Program has operated in close partnership with the Michigan Department of Corrections since 2017, offering college-like courses to incarcerated individuals at the Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, MI.

During its pilot phase, the program administered sessions in critical thinking (Fall 2018), introductory ethics (Spring 2019), education and human flourishing (Fall 2019), and ethical and social theory (Spring 2020).  Course readings and assignments were derived from those taught on Western’s main campus.  For media coverage, see this article on MLive. See also this Stateside documentary (“When You’re Inside” and “How to be a Parent” feature participants from the Prison Education Outreach Program).

College in prison is one effective way of countering the abject dehumanization that is often experienced by incarcerated people—or, stated differently, one effective setting in which students may explore their own humanity.  The structure that a humanistic education captures so well is that of excursion and return: an initial befuddlement as we encounter something alien to us, and—in the process of understanding it, of making the strange familiar to us—a return with a broader view of the situation, of ourselves, and of others.

A worthy endeavor in itself, it is also a means to successful reintegration, gainful employment, and active civic engagement.  And even though it is not a total solution to the racially-discriminatory, class-reproducing, community-destroying practice of mass incarceration, college in prison remains, at the least, one of the most effective means of reducing the likelihood of a person returning to prison or jail upon release.

Currently, the Prison Education Outreach Program is transitioning from an exploratory, volunteer outfit comprised of a few non-credit-conferring college offerings into a formal program that provides humanities-rich, dialogical, relational, and textual instruction and college credit towards a transferrable certificate in the liberal arts.  The anticipated start date for the new certificate program is Fall 2023.

If you are interested in applying to the new liberal arts certificate program at the Lakeland Correctional Facility, please contact Dale Brown:

For potential instructors:

Teaching in prison is often regarded as one of the most rewarding experiences that individuals can have as instructors.  The leaders of SUNY’s Higher Education for the Justice Involved program tell us that

Inside prison, professors play a critical role in shaping, supporting, and guiding students through their academic journeys, just as they do on traditional campuses. Students develop long term educational relationships with faculty that mentor, inspire, and motivate students to pursue academic and professional endeavors. Especially inside of a prison, these relationships have the potential to be deeply meaningful and productive in establishing a student's identity as a scholar.

As we see it, potential instructors should seek to make the classroom a place for self‐reflection, emotional processing, and existential reckoning—a place where, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, we “gather from afar every ray of various genius…and by the concentrated fires” set the hearts of our students aflame.

If you are interested in teaching college courses in prison, please contact Dale Brown: