Logo with a gold A and blue P E P and blue text that spells out Augustana Prison Education Program


"How do students get chosen for this program?"

First, the Illinois Department of Corrections screens applicants to ensure they have a high school diploma or equivalency.

After that, the admissions process is designed to reflect the kind of learning experience a student might come across in an Augustana classroom. The applicants sit for a two-hour written essay exercise where they respond to their choice of several challenging texts. In a day-long retreat, the Augustana Faculty Admissions team reads every essay and looks for evidence that these students could succeed at Augustana, then makes the difficult decision to rank the essays.

While the aspiring students are writing, another aspect of the Admissions process takes place: the personal interview. One by one, each applicant is called out of the room for a brief personal interview with a pair of faculty. The interview process helps the Admissions team see other aspects of an aspiring student's skills and helps to personalize the process.

In our two years conducting admissions, we've had more qualified applicants than we have had available seats. It is hard to turn away qualified applicants, but Augustana is at its best when class sizes are smaller. So the plan moving forward is to continue enrollments of 18-20 students per year.

See a sample of an essay application that was taken by the 2021-22 applicants.

"Will you be teaching at a women's prison, too?"

Unfortunately, no. The closest women's prison is over 100 miles from Augustana and it just isn't feasible for us. However, several other excellent schools have started post-secondary programs at the state's two prisons for women.

"Do you hope to expand to other prisons, too, perhaps with web-based technology?"

We think we are rightly paired with this one state prison just 8 miles away. Augustana's strength is our small classes taught in person by highly committed and effective faculty. The Covid "Zoom" years illustrated well how much more engaging and effective instruction is when done face to face. Augustana teaches in person, both in Rock Island and at East Moline Correctional Center. That's who we are.

"What are your students like?"

Wonderful! Our students' average age is 35, with a range of 24-54. Our group is racially and ethnically diverse. Most are fathers. They come from all over the state. They are as individual as any room full of people -- serious, silly, anxious, proud, excited, nervous, brave... Some are heavily tatted, some look like bankers. The characteristic they nearly all have in common is an absolute dedication to learning. They come to class prepared and eager to discuss even the most challenging of texts. They thank us nearly every day. We thank them in return, because teaching them is highly rewarding.

"How could you give a free education to criminals when the rest of us have to pay for it?"

This question is difficult in part because pain may be at the heart of it. Education is expensive. Students and their families sacrifice a lot to be able to attend a college like Augustana. Some people might think they are more deserving than our APEP students because they worked hard to do the right thing and didn't go to prison. They get upset at what they see as a handout to the undeserving.

And yet...college in prison doesn't just benefit the individual. It benefits all of us -- families, neighbors, employers, communities, the country. The vast majority (over 95%) of incarcerated people will leave prison and come back to the "free world." When they do, the evidence is crystal clear -- folks who earn a BA in prison very rarely recidivate. Please don't mistake this education as evidence that our incarcerated students are living an easy life. The loss of their freedom is a bitter punishment they feel every single day. Many feel deep regret at their actions. This education provides something purposeful and healthy while they serve out the allotted time. When they get out don't we as a country want them to be able to return ready to work and better equipped to live than when they entered prison?

This education is a wonderful gift that was privately funded by The Austin E. Knowlton Foundation. They have given so much to our main campus Augie students in the form of beautiful academic and recreational facilities on campus--including the stunning new Peter J. Lindberg building that houses Kinesiology (and the pool for our water polo and swim teams)! They are allowed to share their resources, after all!

"What do you call the incarcerated students? Do you call them felons, inmates, criminals?"

We call them students. People. Men. We call them by their names and describe them how they individually and collectively ask to be described. Different political administrations control and change the words used to describe incarcerated Americans.  In 2021, the State of Illinois changed its official terminology from "offender" to "individual in custody."  Those who study language know very well that the words we use to describe ourselves and others impacts our perceptions and actions. APEP is not interested in dwelling on anyone's "criminal" past (incarcerated or not) but instead focusing on what we do -- teaching and learning and living our our mission. 

"But what about the victims of violent crime? Don't you think they would be upset at this?"

Nobody should speak for what victims want or need besides those folks themselves. We can ask them, though, as Danielle Sered did in Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration and a Road to Repair. Overwhelmingly, she found that victims with whom she spoke wanted violence to end. Those survivors wanted healing more than they wanted revenge. Education makes things better. Education is not therapy; nevertheless, education can be healing. We hope you'll join us in moving past our often justified anger . . . and toward solutions that benefit all.