University of Iowa students go to prison for class

IOWA CITY — The Iowa Medical and Classification Center — more commonly referred to as the Oakdale prison — sits just 5 miles from the University of Iowa, geographically speaking.

But socially, culturally and economically, the two institutions are worlds apart — a chasm one UI instructor is trying to bridge.

This fall, the university will hold its first-ever course for traditional undergraduates within the prison walls, where typical students will sit shoulder-to-shoulder with atypical inmate students and learn together. The course, “One Community, One Book,” continues the work of a UI Liberal Arts Beyond Bars program launched last fall aimed at improving connections between the campus and the correctional institution.

“Incarcerated students are among the most curious, motivated and open-minded students I’ve met in my life.”

– Michelle Kuo

Author, ‘Reading with Patrick’

The program so far has revolved around a speaker series that brought 35 lecturers to the prison in the fall 2017 and spring 2018 semesters — including UI President Bruce Harreld, religion Professor Jay Holstein and College of Education Dean Daniel Clay.

Nearly 100 inmates attended the lectures, with university credit awarded to 68.

The university already offers college credit to inmates who participate in a UI-taught yoga class and prison-based choir.

Improving access to education for these students, according to the program’s mission statement, aims to increase their civic engagement, strengthen family and community bonds, break legacies of incarceration, inspire inquiry and transformation and create “pathways for successful re-entry with dignity and compassion.”

Oakdale is a medium-security prison with more than 900 inmates. The facility provides mental health and other medical services.


For traditional UI educators and now students, the collaboration seeks to inform, educate and inspire, according to Kathrina Litchfield, who teaches the “One Community, One Book” course, directs Liberal Arts Beyond Bars and serves as programs coordinator for the UI Center for Human Rights.

Through the speaker series, Litchfield said, she’s seen success — not only among inmates but among professors who’ve never been inside a prison and enjoy standing before a literally captive audience.

“They are in that classroom full of students who don’t care what their grade is. (The students are) not there because their parents want them to be, they’re not there because they’ve got nothing better to do — they want to be educated,” Litchfield said. “They want access to information, and they want to understand the world. And that is a teacher’s dream.”

In sharing those experiences with her students, Litchfield said, a growing number began asking, “Can we do that?”

“I said, ‘I can’t have you teach a class, but wouldn’t it be something to have you co-learn with our students,’” Litchfield said. “Because that energy is contagious, and the undergrads will take that with them.”

In making the vision a reality, Litchfield has enrolled nine UI undergrads in the new prison-mingled course that has capacity for 13 — in addition to 12 inmates.

The group will read the memoir, “Reading with Patrick, A Student, a Teacher, and a Life-Changing Friendship,” that tells the true story about author Michelle Kuo’s experience befriending an Arkansas youth who was in prison for murder. Having read with him when he was younger, Kuo decides to continue the practice by visiting him weekly behind bars.

Litchfield praises the book for its relevance and self-critique, as Kuo names and dives into relationship decisions and mistakes she had made.

“I think all of that is really useful in thinking about what it means to go into a prison or a jail and talk about education — why are we doing it? What is its real value?” Litchfield said. “Even above this sort of niche of teaching in a prison, what does it mean for cross-partnerships across socio-economic levels to truly empathize with another person and to act on that empathy?”

The class will meet from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday for seven weeks.

It also jibes with the university’s planned theme semester for the fall — “Redesigning the American dream.” The idea, perhaps, is that not everyone has access to the American dream, as sold, and maybe it’s not something we should all want anyway.

“Maybe it should look like something different,” Litchfield said.

The course, as listed online, notes it will be taught inside the Oakdale Correctional Facility, and students must get permission to enroll.

Permission is necessary, according to Litchfield, because the class comes with several unique requirements, including a background check, prison training and transportation.

“I don’t want any surprises on the first day,” she said.

UI junior Emily Creery, 20, of Hawkeye, northeast of Waterloo, said she averted the first-day shock by getting a surprise shortly after enrolling. She didn’t realize correctional facility meant prison until she was asked to sign a memo of understanding and complete training required by the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

That threw her a bit, creating some anxiety for her and her family. But, as a journalism major motivated by a mission to tell stories of the underrepresented, Creery is mostly excited.

“I think this is something you have to jump in and learn from,” she said. “But, yeah, I told my family, and they were a little hesitant because people see prison in a certain light.”

For the course’s final two sessions, author Kuo will visit the prison and lead the discussions.


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“It’s a privilege for so many reasons,” she said. “First, of course, is the students themselves … Incarcerated students are among the most curious, motivated and open-minded students I’ve met in my life.”

Additionally, Kuo said, she’s excited to engage with the undergraduates during a “formative time in their lives when they are asking the big questions: who do I want to become, what does it mean to live a meaningful life? How do I form connections with people who have different backgrounds than me? How can I learn from them?”

“This program gives students the chance to learn alongside people who have had deep, intimate encounters with the justice system, and it is a powerful way to answer those questions,” she said.

Litchfield said she hopes these UI-prison collaborations continue and increase — expanding opportunities for those inside and outside the facility.

In addition to the lecture series and the UI-led prison choir, the university this summer will offer eight-week courses in the prison for inmates on elementary psychology, drawing and writing for success.

The hope is to create a structure that can sustain accredited college coursework toward a degree for some inmates — although even those serving life sentences profit from the education through better quality of life, Litchfield said.

“They don’t expect to earn a degree,” she said. “But there are plenty of benefits to their enrollment as well.”

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