Through the Prison Education Program (PEP) at Adams State University, incarcerated individuals can pursue college-level certifications, associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees. Traditionally, the curricula have been delivered by adjunct faculty who travel to prisons within Colorado or through correspondence courses nationally.

Yet once students from the PEP graduate, they’ve had few options to continue their education or access professional development opportunities while still incarcerated. During the COVID pandemic, staffing issues presented an additional barrier, further reducing students’ education opportunities.

Together, PEP and the Colorado Department of Corrections Education (CDOC) staff explored the possibility for graduates to become adjunct instructors, thus making it easier for the programs to provide quality education.

“When I was approached about the opportunity, I was immediately intrigued,” said Jim Bullington, program coordinator for PEP. “Knowing the culture at Adams State and how groundbreaking it would be, I was convinced that we should pursue this endeavor.”

Bullington made one stipulation, that those who teach within the prison receive compensation at the same rate as adjuncts outside the facility. Although it seems like a minor request, most employment opportunities available to incarcerated individuals only provide a daily wage between 60 cents and $1.30.

Excited by the program’s possibilities, PEP Director Lauren Hughes and Bullington presented the initiative at the annual Correctional Education Association conference earlier this year. Attendees from the Mellon Foundation were so impressed that they asked for more information, which eventually resulted in a $150,000 grant to help bring the program to fruition.

As the first previously incarcerated person to head PEP, Hughes stresses the importance of empowering incarcerated individuals with leadership roles.

“They will no longer need their families’ help to survive inside the prison, and they can help support their families on the outside,” said Hughes. “The experience gained from being employed in these roles will translate to additional employment opportunities once they are released.”

How It Started, How It’s Going

During the earliest stages of the program, Hughes and Bullington approached former student David (last name withheld) about becoming a teacher. David, an incarcerated student, earned his MBA through the PEP.

“We want, and the CDOC wants, to make this a success. We don’t want to throw someone into a classroom who has never taught. We want our instructors to go through different types of training,” says Bullington. So, before he started teaching, David worked alongside Bullington as a teaching assistant. At the same time, Bullington and colleagues underwent “student-peer” training to ensure they effectively passed on teaching skills.

“David has an MBA, so now he’s teaching two sections of macroeconomics for us and more courses in the spring semester,” says Bullington. “He’s the instructor on record. They’re his classes.”

With the help of the Mellon Foundation Grant, the hope is to replicate the pilot’s success and expand the program to courses in the humanities taught by incarcerated individuals with graduate degrees in those subjects.

The program, which has the potential to revolutionize the current prison education system, paves the way for incarcerated individuals to acquire new skills and offer their expertise.

“The grant is not just about funding a program. It’s about creating opportunities for people who deserve a second chance,” said Hughes.