Tyrone Stone, Brandon Johnson, Albert Redmond – these are just three of the ten men studying hard to earn a four-year bachelor’s
degree in communication studies from Augustana College.
One of the ten is the father of a freshman in college – they’re working through their first year of higher learning together. One is the father of an eight-year-old who is so proud of the hard work his dad is putting in to obtain his degree.
These ten men meet together in a classroom setting, seated in a circle to better facilitate discussion, walls adorned with Augustana’s mission, pennants, and words of inspiration, like most college classrooms. But unlike most college classrooms, the view outside of their classroom is a little different, its grounds surrounded by fencing, barbed wire looped through the top.
These men are the inaugural students in the Augustana Prison Education Program (APEP). APEP began its first semester in the fall of 2021, offering qualified men, currently incarcerated at the East Moline Correctional Center, the opportunity to obtain a four-year Bachelor of arts in communication studies degree from Augustana College.
APEP is funded privately through the Austin E. Knowlton Foundation. The foundation’s mission is to promote and advance higher education in the United States. Dr. Sharon Varallo, a communications studies professor at Augustana since 1998 and Executive Director of APEP, was the driving force behind bringing the program to campus.
Sharon understands firsthand the plight of the incarcerated and the pressure it places on families. Having been impacted by her own family experiences with wrongful incarceration, she said her experience and her desire for change planted the seed of the prison education program in her mind.
“My doctoral studies were focused on interpersonal communication which grew into intercultural communication,” Sharon said. “When done best we understand the world and who we are in relation to other people. We use good decision-making to make ethical decisions in a complicated world. When my daughter faced a situation with injustice, that shined a light on what I needed to do with my knowledge and power in this world. This is the only thing I’m qualified to do to help generate positive change.”
The program is modeled after the highly successful Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) at Bard College in New York. Like Bard College, Sharon said this program would not be possible without the support of many individuals and organizations, especially Augustana College.
“Augustana is a college. This is what we do and we can do it well. We practice what we preach, that you can be a servant leader in a diverse world. I’m not a judge or a lawyer. I’m a professor. I teach.”
One of those teachers is St. Paul member Dr. Paul Olsen. Paul teaches African American/Black Literature, the study in which he has his doctorate. This course consists of only literature written by black authors. Students are introduced to everyone from Langston Hughes to poets from the Harlem Renaissance, Richard Wright to Toni Morrison – giants in the realm of literature. Racial injustice and racial justice, awakening powers and institutional powers are just a few of the themes the course explores with topics ranging from physical enslavement, psychological enslavement, spiritual enslavement, to freedom.
“Literature takes readers on a journey to knowledge and awareness, an awareness of change. When I introduce a poet, I share a picture,” Paul said. “What that says is ‘here is this person that looks like you. And they’re famous, they’re important, people think they’ve got something to say.’ This program gives power to their voice.”
The experience in the program is far more than academic. The changes and growth of the students in the APEP program are exponential, moving beyond the topics in their textbooks and into the larger world.
“There’s hope, personal and institutional hope, and there’s confidence. They’re inspired, they’re inspiring,” Paul said. “I saw men inspired by literature, inspired by a college that is willing to bring our program to them. There’s a new sense of hope on a broad racial justice platform. Then there’s this intimate, individual hope. ‘I’m going to get a job, I’m getting a college degree, I’ve got teachers who will write recommendations.’”
And Paul’s class is only one of the many courses students complete while working toward their four-year degree.
St. Paul member Dr. Jason Mahn, professor of religion and director of the presidential center for faith and learning at Augustana College, teaches a course on religion. Students explore various religions and their traditions including Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism, among others, to learn about these different religions and how to think and communicate across lines of religious difference.
“I’m interested in all kinds of justice, and because I’m a Christian theologian, I’m really interested in lives of redemption,” Mahn said. “When the Lutheran church through Lutheran colleges builds bridges to communities that would otherwise be forgotten, marginalized, or stereotyped, we are living out our personal and institutional faith.”
While recidivism rates are a goal of these programs within the prison system, Augustana has a much wider focus.
“Recidivism rates are high, largely because prison offers too little opportunities to heal and reform. By participating in a Lutheran liberal arts curriculum that educates in mind, body, and spirit, students reenter communities with a better handle on how they can contribute,” Jason said. “While cutting back on recidivism rates is often a primary goal, we at Augustana tend to measure success in much wider terms. Thinking critically, problem-solving, and developing curiosity, empathy, and an embrace of ambiguity are skills that are good in and of themselves.”
One student in the program spoke with KWQC-TV6 back in October, just a few months after the program had begun.
“(APEP) provides a better opportunity upon my release to go out there and become more productive than destructive, which was the past life I was living. Not coming back, not being another statistic of recidivism, that’s my aim.”
The recidivism rate of prison education programs throughout the country is dramatically lower for students who participate in the program compared to those who do not.
“The Augustana prison education program only brings about good,” Paul said. “It’s only good.”
Explore the Augustana Prison Education Program with Dr. Sharon Varallo and St. Paul members (and Augustana faculty) Jason Mahn and Paul Olsen during Adult Learning on Sunday, Feb. 20 at 10:15 a.m. in the Chapel.