Originally published January 2018
“Everyone has a right to an education,” says Alexis Smith, an English grad assistant at Mississippi College.
Smith, along with local professors, are giving incarcerated men and women a chance to learn and grow through the Prison to College Pipeline program.
Professors Dr. Otis Pickett and Dr. Patrick Alexander co-founded the program in 2014 with a grant from the University of Mississippi. Through Prison to College Pipeline, inmates are able to receive college credit. Support for the program comes from the Mississippi Humanities Council, as well as Mississippi College, who gives the free college credit for any students who complete courses.
Pickett started teaching classes for inmates in Parchman’s Unit 25 in 2014 and continued for the next three years. Courses are focused on the humanities, including history, literature, and writing. Pickett also taught one course called “Justice Everywhere” that studied the speeches of men like MLK and Obama.
“We work with the prisons to find out what their needs are and what classes we should offer,” says Pickett. “An investment in the humanities pays tremendous dividends.”
In 2016, Prison to College Pipeline began offering classes for women at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, where Pickett taught a class on southern women’s history. Some women at CMCF have already earned 9 hours of college credit.
“This is the first time incarcerated women in a state institution are able to earn college credit in Mississippi,” says Pickett.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Mississippi has the second highest incarceration rate after Louisiana and one of the highest re-incarceration rates. But Smith says states with educational programs for inmates tend to have a lower recidivism rate. She says the goal of Prison to College Pipeline is to educate the incarcerated so they can contribute to society once they are released, instead of re-entering the prison system.
“The problem is a lack of education,” says Smith. “We are trying to help get them back on their feet.”
Smith earned her bachelor’s degree in English literature with a history minor from Mississippi College. A student in Pickett’s class, she was inspired to get involved with the program after hearing about the work that was being done at Parchman. She credits the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander for fueling her to do something about the mass incarceration problem in America.
Smith started volunteering with Prison to College Pipeline in the summer of 2016 and helped students with their writing during the pilot history course at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. She says she enjoyed the experience so much that she didn’t want to wait until the next summer to help. Now, Smith is heading up the program and goes every Wednesday to spend time with the inmates at CMCF. Whether it’s helping teach a class, tutoring them on their writing, or just encouraging them, she says, “every week is fulfilling.”
“I love getting to be with them,” she says. “It’s been great to be a part of this program in some small way.”
Other professors from Mississippi College, Millsaps, Jackson State University, and beyond are getting involved in this program. Others are donating books or offering to help with receptions for graduates. “People see the need,” Smith says. “I’m impressed with this program and the people who want to help.”
MC English professor Dr. Susan Lassiter held a reading group with inmates last fall, and this past spring Smith assisted Lassiter in teaching an American literature course at CMCF. Dr. Mignon Kucia of MC’s communication department also worked with Smith to teach a personal and professional communication class.
Each August, Prison to College Pipeline hosts a graduation to celebrate participants who have finished courses within the last year. Teachers and family come to share in their accomplishments. Smith says 17 students graduated in August 2016, and this year, they had 39 grads.
“I’ve gotten to know some of them for a whole year,” says Smith. “It’s opened my eyes and changed my perspective. I’ve learned twice as much from them as they have from me.”
She says it’s encouraging to hear students tell her that the program is helping them view people and the world differently. “I tell them, ‘I am investing in your life because you are just as important,’” says Smith. “Our goal is to give them back as much of their life as possible.”
“It’s a chance to invest in human beings,” says Pickett. He adds that Jesus stressed the importance of visiting those in prison.
Smith encourages even those with life sentences to learn and contribute their opinions. “I try to tell them that they can still be productive and have a voice,” she says.
Smith hopes that Mississippi will soon establish an institute whose purpose is finding solutions to the state’s incarceration epidemic.
“Any time we are teaching them, it’s helping out state,” Smith says. “I really do think education is the key, and I believe we can change this state for the good.”