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Marquette University Receives $1.25 Million to Bolster Prison Education Program

Marquette University recently received over a million dollars from the Mellon Foundation to further energize and grow its prison education program.Mellon 1 1536x1024

The program is headed by two organizations housed within Marquette’s Center for Urban Research, Teaching, & Outreach (CURTO). The first, the Educational Preparedness Program (EPP), offers courses, academic support, and career-building resources to currently and formerly incarcerated (CFI) students.

The program makes available â€śblended courses” that bring CFI students and Marquette undergrads into the same classrooms. The courses span various fields – including criminology, social welfare and justice, and history – and touch on topics such as mass incarceration, surveillance, poetry, and the psychology of adolescent development.

The courses are offered at several sites: the Milwaukee County Community Reintegration Center, the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility, the Racine Correctional Institution, and Marquette’s own campus, said Dr. Darren Wheelock, director of criminal justice data analytics at Marquette.

One course, Invisible Sentence, looks at how the incarceration of parents can impact the lives of the children left behind, as well as the policies and practices that can help these children. The course primarily focuses on how this phenomenon affects marginalized communities.

CFI students can take up to four blended courses for free, for which they earn college credit, while learning to acclimate to college settings, perhaps for the first time, according to Wheelock.

And when they decide they want to continue their education by pursuing a degree, they turn to the second organization under CURTO involved in this effort, the McNeely Prison Education Consortium (MPEC).

MPEC operates in the southeastern portion of Wisconsin, working to help CFI students get on four-year degree pathways at Marquette or any of the consortium’s partner schools, said Wheelock, co-founder of EPP and director of MPEC.

The other schools and groups in the consortium are the Milwaukee School of Engineering, the Milwaukee Area Technical CollegeAlverno CollegeUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMount Mary UniversityConcordia UniversityMilwaukee Institute of Art and Designand the Medical College of Wisconsin.

The prison education program as a whole has had more than 400 students since 2022, composing a mix of both incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people and Marquette undergrads, though the program’s origins stretch back to 2015, Wheelock said.

The program’s current benefactor, The Mellon Foundation, has been involved in this collective effort since its early stages. Back in December of 2020, the foundation awarded the then-budding EPP a $745,000 24-month grant that allowed the team to build up and grow.

This $1.25 million award marks Mellon’s second contribution to the program. The money will mostly go toward staffing – directors, program managers, academic advisers, and peer mentors – and student resources, such as books, school supplies, and transportation, Wheelock said.

Since 2015, the Mellon Foundation has awarded more than $73 million in grants to prison higher ed programs, according to Dr. Carolyn Dinshaw, senior program officer for higher learning at Mellon. It is in service of the foundation’s goal to expand access to liberal arts education, she said.

“Marquette, in particular, is a great exemplification of this goal in that it not only runs an education program inside a carceral facility, but it's also taking a leadership position in a regional consortium of higher education institutions that are bringing this kind of life-changing educational opportunity to incarcerated individuals,” Dinshaw said.

One of the growth targets for Marquette’s program is to create statewide coverage for CFI individuals, Wheelock said. It is collaborating with UW-Madison’s own prison education program towards that aim.

“The goal is to provide incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students with any educational opportunities that any other student might have,” he said. “[For] any other student in any other context, there's choice, opportunities, different pathways, different programs and majors. We want to replicate that experience as much as we can.”

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