Doctoral student launches new program to support justice-involved

Contact: Kayla Lambert
Dale Brown teaching incarcerated individuals at the Lakeland Correctional Facility.

Brown teaches incarcerated individuals at the Lakeland Correctional Facility as part of the Higher Education for the Justice-involved program at Western.

COLDWATER, Mich.—Bronco pride is felt by students from vastly different backgrounds but all united by the goal to create a better life. For Dale Brown, a doctoral student in interdisciplinary studies, the potential found in that kind of passion inspired his desire to bring quality education to individuals incarcerated. 

During the beginning of my academic journey, I always knew I wanted to aim for some sort of social good, especially in terms of expanding access to higher education,” says Brown. “So when I arrived here for graduate school in 2016, I started asking, how could we start doing something like this in prison?”

Brown’s steadfast commitment to the transformative power of higher education led to the establishment of Higher Education for the Justice-involved (HEJI) and Western’s newest branch campus, WMU-Coldwater, located inside the Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan. The program provides incarcerated individuals the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree from Western.

The idea stems from Brown’s doctoral thesis, which focuses on the transformative and humanizing power of higher education for justice-involved people. In 2018, Brown partnered with the Michigan Department of Corrections and the Department of Philosophy to offer a pilot program. It did not provide academic credit, but the new HEJI initiative, which recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, does make it possible for program participants to earn a college degree while incarcerated. The first cohort of  25 students comprises different ages, backgrounds and experiences. 

“These are folks who are extremely dedicated to improving themselves through higher education,” says Brown. “There’s this hunger for self-improvement within the incarcerated population.”

Classes in a variety of disciplines are intended to give students a well-rounded opportunity to learn. Most courses fall within the scope of the humanities, including anthropology, literature, philosophy, education, classics, religion and sociology.  

“We're focused on classes with themes that say something about the complexity of being human,” says Brown. “That’s going to be a big part of the program. We are unapologetic in that the humanities and liberal arts are not a fancy addition to a college education: They are the foundation on which it stands.”

For Brown, one of the best parts of the experience is being present to see the students find pride in their academic institution. He highlighted the way his students’ eyes light up when they receive their Bronco-branded notebooks and pens, noting their excitement reminds him of the importance of higher education.

“I saw them get excited about a folder, and I started to understand,” he says. “That's the type of student we want, right? Incredibly proud to be a Bronco.” ■