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#OTGYpsi: EMU's 'College in Prison' program provides first step at a second chance


Concentrate Ann Arbor

Sarah Rigg's Feature Article: EMU launches first-ever bachelor's degree program for Michigan's only women's prison

Eastern Michigan University

EMU College in Prison

Returning Citizens Fellows Program

Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility

Federal Bureau of Prisons: "Pell Grants Restores Possibilities for Incarcerated People"


Josh Hakala: You're listening to 89 one WEMU. I'm Josh Hakala, and this is On the Ground Ypsi. It's a program intended to bring you the stories of the Ypsilanti community. And we bring you On the Ground Ypsi in partnership with the reporting team at Concentrate Media. And, today, we are going to talk about the College in Prison program. Today, I'm joined by Concentrate Media reporter Rylee Barnsdale, whose online news site is reporting this week on the program, which was created through Eastern Michigan University. And, Rylee, thanks for joining us.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Josh.

Josh Hakala: And joining us in studio is Meghan Lechner. She is the director of the College in Prison Program at EMU and the Returning Citizens Fellowship. Thanks so much for being here.

Meghan Lechner: Oh, thanks for having me. I'm glad to be here.

Josh Hakala: All right, Rylee. Well, let's start with you. This piece was written by Sarah Rigg. Tell us a little bit about the College in Prison program and what drew your team to write about it.

Rylee Barnsdale: Yeah, there is a lot of really good work being done throughout Ypsi when it comes to incarcerated individuals and returning citizens. And, unfortunately, the way the system is set up, it's sort of designed with an out-of-sight, out-of-mind kind of philosophy. But these programs are, including this one here at EMU, really designed to sort of battle that and get folks really ready to come back into society, ready to take on whatever life throws at them from there, because it's really going to throw a lot at them based on their lived experiences.

Josh Hakala: This isn't the first time that EMU has worked with the incarcerated population. Can you tell me about some of the other programs that they're involved in?

Rylee Barnsdale: Yeah. So, one of the big ones that sort of was a precursor into this College in Prison program was the Inside-Out program, which brought students--current EMU students--into the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility to earn college credits while the incarcerated students were able to earn certifications. So, this current program is extending that and bringing a full-fledged bachelor's program to these incarcerated students, which is, historically, very, very difficult to do while you are inside. And I think a really cool aspect that Sarah's article covers about this is the accessibility of it all and with it becoming so much more important now to have a college education in order to find these well-paying jobs and have upward mobility in them and having their education be so difficult to achieve when you are in prison. This is really going to make it a whole lot easier for these women to reenter society, get these jobs that will help them, you know, move forward in life and, you know, lower that recidivism rate as well.

Josh Hakala: All right, Meghan, let's start with you personally. How did you get involved in this field and this program specifically?

Meghan Lechner: Yeah, thanks for asking. So, I've been working in more traditional higher ed for about the last eight years at various universities kind of across the country. And, however, my thesis research was in prison education reform, and this was right before President Obama had initiated the Second Chance Pell Opportunity. So, it really piqued my interest back in the day. But then, I worked in more traditional student affairs and student development world for the next eight years and through personal connections and the opportunity to come facilitate this program here, I could not pass up the opportunity. So, I was incredibly thankful for folks taking a chance on me to join their team and join this space. It's, as a colleague says, "We're very much building the plane while it's flying." It is a big task, but I feel really thankful to be here.

Josh Hakala: So, well, let's start at the core of the whole issue. Really, why is making an education attainable for incarcerated people worth our time and our financial investment?

Meghan Lechner: Oh, goodness. Let me count the ways. So, starting with just the human aspect of it of a personal belief that all human beings deserve the right to quality education and that education is the number one tool in our tool belt that can leverage upward mobility for us just as people is incredibly important. But two, so there's a financial element. So, recidivism is expensive. It is really expensive to keep somebody in prison. And when we can encourage folks to take this opportunity and get themselves and kind of break that cycle of poverty and break the cycle of crime and instill a, like, generational cycle and generational shift towards education, why wouldn't we want to do that? It just makes good financial sense.

Josh Hakala: We could really do a whole show on recidivism and why reducing it would help the greater world.

Meghan Lechner: Absolutely.

Josh Hakala: But I figured we get, like, a cliffnotes version there. But what are some of the roadblocks and challenges that people have when they are attempting to reenter society?

Meghan Lechner: Oh gosh! Well, employment and housing are number one and number two. It's kind of hard to differentiate which is which, depending on personal circumstance, family life, what kind of community folks are reentering into. But, for the most part, those are the two biggest hurdles. Here in Michigan and in southeast Michigan specifically, we're pretty lucky. Cities like Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti are working hard to reduce the stigma around folks who have felonies on their records and providing better housing, more affordable housing. And when it comes to employment, the "Ban the Box" campaigns that have existed all over the country have definitely persisted here. And it is really giving these folks who have worked hard to earn these degrees and turn their lives around an opportunity to actually do it.

Josh Hakala: You're listening to On the Ground Ypsi on WEMU. I'm joined by Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale and Meghan Lechner, who is the director of the College in Prison program at EMU. Some private colleges have offered programs like this, but Eastern Michigan is the first public university to do so. Why is EMU getting out in front of this, and why do you think other schools like them have not?

Meghan Lechner: We are incredibly lucky to have an administration that really values the community aspect of this work. So, like, many more of the private universities that are engaging in this work are spiritual-based, which is understandable and great and there's a definitely a culture of ministry work happening in prisons, like, for decades. However, we think it's super-important that the state institutions start to engage in this as well to show our support. These are Michigan citizens. These are Michigan residents. They are our community members. And any way that we can be supportive of them being successful feels important.

Josh Hakala: So, you talked about the Pell Grant issue. Funding is always an issue with any program. Of course, it's especially complicated because up until recently people in prison did not have access to Pell Grants. And that ban was in place for the last 26 years. And, as you mentioned, a recent change to the Pell Grant laws opened the door to allowing incarcerated people a chance at getting an education. Can you talk about how much of a difference that will make--or is making, I should say?

Meghan Lechner: An incredible difference. So, we are already seeing more state institutions engage in this work. Western Michigan University has a program that is kickstarting this semester as well. Grand Valley is working on it. We've got a bunch of different state schools that are hopefully going to be engaging in this work soon. But, yes, using Pell Grants is an incredible resource for these students, and I think, most importantly, accurate and ethical advising in this space is going to be really important. So, helping students to use these funds well and making sure that they can get the most bang for their buck, for lack of a better phrase, and making sure that we are being good stewards of those funds as well, because we don't want to waste their valuable money and make sure they can get the most and best education they can.

Josh Hakala: So, what are some of the degrees that students can work toward? And what are some of the more popular fields that you're seeing so far?

Meghan Lechner: Yeah, that is definitely going to be an evolving process for us. So, because we're new, all of our students right now are getting bachelor's of general studies degrees. And the beauty behind this is that all of our students already hold one or two or, for some of them, even three associate's degrees, which is bananas. But they have a lot of knowledge already. And so, using this general studies degree, it allows us to use--or allows them to use--the skills and the knowledge that they've already learned to build on a degree that can be tailored to exactly what they want to do post-release. So, that's where the kind of ethical advising comes in of us sitting down with them and having genuine conversations about what do you want to do with your life. Like, do you want to start a small business? Do you want to work for a nonprofit? Do you want to become a counselor? Like, what is it that you want to do? So, that way, we can engage with EMU professors to make sure that we are offering courses that meet those needs. So, a lot of our students want to go into various social work, kinds of field advocacy work, but others, I've got a couple that want to open food trucks and some that want to have dreams of owning shops that take care of unwanted animals. Like, you name it. I mean, just as much as you can walk up to any traditional EMU student walking on campus right now and hear the smorgasbord of ideas that they have for their lives, that's what exists in this space as well.

Josh Hakala: If somebody wants to open up a food truck outside the station, I will give them at least five or six solid customers right out of the gate.

Meghan Lechner: I will let her know. That's it.

Josh Hakala: Are you seeing some positive feedback from the community and the business community about maybe working with some of these students once they are able to get out and take their degrees and try to use them?

Meghan Lechner: We have an incredible partnership with a nonprofit group called A Brighter Way here in Ypsilanti, and they definitely are doing a lot of the groundwork of working with these businesses to help them be open to our students moving into these spaces. But, yes, that is something that we will significantly be working on. Thankfully, we have a little bit of time....well, not thankfully for our students who are hoping for early or release dates. But our student who will be earliest release is not until 2026. So, we have some time to start building up those relationships and really giving our students a chance to engage in the community in that way.

Josh Hakala: So, you had some challenges getting up and running with the pandemic and everything. Of course, that impacted so many people. But now that things have just kicked off, how are they going and how many students are you working with?

Meghan Lechner: Yeah, definitely some roadblocks along the way. As you can imagine, working with two of the slower moving elements of higher education and the Department of Corrections. Sometimes, it just takes a minute. But we have 20 students currently engaged full-time in classes at the prison, which is incredible. We're offering four courses right now that they are all enrolled in, and they're going great. The students are really engaged. Our professors say these are some of the most engaged students they've ever worked with. Most of them had already read the full textbook or the full course content before class even began. So, definitely some engaged and excited students.

Josh Hakala: We mentioned that private colleges have already started this. This is the first public university to do this. Are you hoping to sort of set a model for other schools to do this?

Meghan Lechner: We would be humbled to do that, certainly. I think where we may have some more help to give or some more research to be done is that we are the only ones operating in an all-women's facility, seeing as Women's Huron Valley is the only women's prison in Michigan. And so, that is really what our focus is on is what are the unique differences in serving women versus men where most of the research done in this field, understandably, because there's tragically significantly more of them. The research is focused on men. And so, that leaves a huge gap and a huge opportunity for us to really meaningfully engage in how do women learn differently in this space than men, and what are ways that we as EMU and as educators can really lean in and fill that gap.

Josh Hakala: Meghan Lechner is the director of the College in Prison program at Eastern Michigan University. And, as always, Rylee Barnsdale from Concentrate Media. Thanks to both of you for joining us today on On the Ground Ypsi.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks so much, Josh.

Meghan Lechner: Thanks for having me.

Josh Hakala: If you'd like to listen to past episodes of On the Ground Ypsi or would like to listen to an extended version of today's interview, you can find it on our website at WEMU dot org. This is On the Ground Ypsi. I'm Josh Hakala. This is 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University.

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Josh Hakala is the general assignment reporter for the WEMU news department.
Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
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