University of Iowa goes to Prison – For all the Right Reasons

University of Iowa goes to Prison – For all the Right Reasons

As long as there have been prisons in America, there have been people concerned about educating the inmates. William Rogers, a clergyman, is believed to be the first prison educator, teaching behind bars in the late 1700s. Despite strong opposition from those that believe prisoners should not be entitled to an education, there are still organizations working toward a better life after prison.

It is easy to understand the reasoning behind why the naysayers feel the way they do. Continuing and post-secondary education can be incredibly expensive. Going to college or university is a debt sentence that can drag on for decades. Not every free citizen can afford higher education, no matter how smart or talented they are, and sometimes in spite of their best efforts. So, to see an offender being handed an education? It can seem unfair or undeserved.

What those that oppose the idea may not understand is that prison education programs are vitally important, not just for the prisoner, but for our whole country. There is a massive ripple effect, including the allocation of tax dollars, the impact on the community when an offender is released, and the increased chances of recidivism coming into play. An uneducated inmate is much more likely to draw on social programs upon release and to go right back to jail within three years – and the cost of education and having him or her become a contributing member of society.

Make no mistake, prison education is no free ride. The aim is to improve the lives of everyone, not just the inmate; to reduce the out-of-control prison population across America; to reform prisoners; and to shore up our workforce with ready laborers and entrepreneurs. It’s a big-picture process that relies heavily on educational institutions going into prisons to teach, share, inspire, mentor, and lead.

That is exactly what the University of Iowa is doing.

Faculty and volunteers from the University of Iowa are bringing education to inmates in Iowa.

Currently, only two-credit-hour courses through the University College program are offered, but there is recognition of the potential to move credits towards a degree – one that can be finished in or outside of the prison.

Since the pilot program showed success, the university has since offered two-credit hours for 60 students expanding on a speaker series and is also offering college credit for inmates that enroll in yoga or sing in the Oakdale Community Choir.

There are already examples of the impact of the program and the impact it has on the possibilities after release. One inmate, Michael Davis-Carson, has been using his time behind bars to take courses through Iowa’s prison education system.  When he first entered prison, he didn’t see a lot of options for when his sentence was done. Now, upon parole, he plans to enter the work release program, then earn an associate degree, followed by a bachelor’s degree. To fund this continuing education, he is turning to entrepreneurship and plans to run a lawn and landscaping service.

Education transforms lives whether you are out in the world or behind bars. No matter where or how you get your education, it can open doors and opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t be available and allow individuals to build a better life. Prisoner education is a benefit to society, not just the inmates receiving it. As more universities and colleges go to prison to educate the inmates, we can expect more success stories and a brighter future for all.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2017) and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily NewsPrison Legal News, and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at,, and