Eastern University’s Prison Education Program Serves as a Beacon of Hope and Transformation

Eastern University Prison Education Program

Image via Eastern University.

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Eastern University’s Prison Education Program (PEP) is much more than an academic initiative; it’s a transformative community that is painting a new picture of hope and opportunity behind the walls of SCI-Chester.

Rooted in the university’s core values of faith, reason, and justice, PEP is making a significant impact, not just in the realm of educational opportunity, but also in the realm of art and creative expression.

PEP’s mission is to provide hope through transformative higher education, workshops, and resources to our neighbors in prison and returning from incarceration. Eastern expressed public commitment to this mission in 2016, when the university signed the Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge, aimed at reducing barriers to higher education for individuals with criminal records.

Eastern professor Stephen Welsh recently co-taught a course with Tieshka Smith, a community-based artist and photographer, entitled “Creativity & The Arts Exposed” for Eastern students at SCI-Chester. This course afforded a precious space for students to create visual art and poetry.

“From the first day when my maroon sweatpants had me mistaken for an inmate in a dog-sniffing lineup,” said Welsh, “to the last day when many of my students welled up with tears about the autobiographical artwork they were sharing, I enjoyed believing in these gentlemen and what they could accomplish through the arts.”

The course culminated in an art installation called “Celebrating Higher Education Behind Bars.”

First showcased at the Philadelphia Ethical Society, the exhibit provided an aesthetic platform for students to express themselves. One such student at SCI-Chester, Jy’Aire, penned a compelling essay while earning his associate degree.

Entitled “Dear Ira: You Did Not Die in Vain,” the essay captures Jy’Aire’s transformative journey:

“Ira, as you look down on me in this minuscule cell in SCI-Chester where I’m serving 27 years for murder and other charges, I hope you are satisfied with the man that I’ve become. I pray that your loved ones find peace. But most importantly, Ira, I want you to know that I apologize.”

Designed to foster community dialogue about the “college-in-prison” experience, the exhibit provided unique reflections on the realities of incarceration and the ways in which students have explored and processed themes of love, loss, faith, and resilience.

“The exhibit was a recreation of the very classroom at SCI-Chester in which the class was taught,” said Smith. “It was a testament to PEP’s ability to cultivate a learning community where students feel empowered and supported to express themselves in such a compelling and honest way.”

“The installation was a testimony to our students’ growth,” said Dr. John Fantuzzo, the Director of PEP. “Students studied art history and were invited to become fellow artists. This exhibit followed suit, highlighting our students’ existential agency during their first semester of college. We are proud of what we accomplished together!”

Learn more about how Eastern University’s Prison Education Program is helping students grow and improve their success upon reentry.

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