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

A Day in the Life

A Day in the Life shares stories from faculty, students, and APEP Student Assistants. These stories aim to give insight into APEP: how it works, and how it impacts participants.


Alison Lawrence

"I was in the first group to go into the prison, and we did a lesson with the APEP students that we often do with our English 101 students called “teach the tutor.” In this lesson, the tutee is invited to teach their tutor about some concept that they learned in class for about five to ten minutes, and then test the tutor to see if they have learned anything. This exercise shows the tutee that there is value in being able to teach something to somebody, and that this can be a tool for helping you learn concepts yourself. It also sharpens the skill of being able to explain ideas such that others can understand them.

We went in to teach this lesson, and we didn’t really know what to expect other than the fact that our students would have something prepared for us. Usually, our tutee comes to us with a short powerpoint or some kind of infographic to facilitate their lesson, but we walked into the classroom and saw a bookshelf with just a handful of books, one of those big box TV’s from ancient times, and no computers at all. The tutees came up to us one by one, passing shared books back and forth, and they brought their lessons written on pieces of lined paper. And, just like that, they taught us. The thing that struck me most about the way that these students taught their lessons that was different from the students on campus was that everything that they taught us about, they related back to their own lives and their own situations in a really profound way. You could tell that the topics meant something to them that was more than what they usually mean to students who present something from their freshman year inquiry class, or a mandatory history class. So, I’m going to share with you a couple of conversations from my tutoring sessions so that you can get a feel for what we experienced through the words of the students themselves, and maybe learn something about this program that you might not have expected, just as we all did.

The first student I was tutoring came up to me and said that he was going to be teaching me about the “Perspective on the Individual and Society.” Now, the Perspective on the Individual and Society is a learning perspective, or general education requirement, that is a part of the Augustana curriculum, and it includes courses that focus on learning about how society is structured, why people do what they do, and how certain groups are affected by societal systems. So, he gave me a lesson on what this competency was and what it meant, and at the very end he said, “You know, I’ve been in here for 21 years, and I don’t even know what’s out there anymore.” And my first thought was, “Oh my God, that’s as long as I’ve been alive, that’s longer than the iphone has been around.” He went on to say, “When I get out of here, I want to own an apartment complex, and make money by renting to people. I didn't know how I would get there, but understanding why people do what they do and how society works will help me with that goal, and this education is my step in that direction.”

Then, my next tutee came up to me and he said, “I’m going to teach you about Buddhism.” And he had me come up with a mnemonic to memorize the Noble Truths, which caught me off guard a bit because I didn’t think I’d have to do too much thinking in this situation. We did the exercise and then he said this: “When I was first incarcerated, I realized I needed to forgive myself and move on from my past. I took this class on religion, and we learned about Buddhism, and I realized that I had been practicing Buddhism all along. It has helped me heal.” From taking this class, he now had the language to describe his experiences and had found a tool to help him navigate his situation.

At the end of the lesson, we watched a Ted Talk with the students about linguistic justice. It’s called  “Three ways to speak English”, where Jamila Lysicott speaks about the many forms of English that exist, and how they are all valuable and convey meaning in different, enriching ways that are not expressed in “standard” English. One student was so moved by this that he jumped up from his seat and said, “Yes! Why should we all have to learn one kind of English? Why can’t we gather together and learn other ways to speak English?” It was likely his first time hearing someone who spoke like him in an academic setting, and that representation mattered. It showed him that he really did belong in that classroom, and that he has valuable things to say, too.

I chose to tell you these stories through the paraphrased words of the students because I want to emphasize that, especially for these students, language is power. The language to understand your situation is power and justice. I think that we like to try to quantify the impact that prison education programs have after people exit prison by emphasizing decreased re-incarceration rates and numbers of tax dollars saved, and these are all incredible and important outcomes. However, we can’t quantify the work that this program is doing before the students get out. It is helping them navigate their situation and name their experiences—it is correcting the failure of a system that never taught them they could have a voice, or that their perspectives mattered. It is a privilege simply to be able to name what I have seen.

I’d like to end my piece with the words of one of the students upon our departure. He shook my hand and said, “I hope you learned as much from us as we learned from you.” I actually called my pastor from home right after this experience, and after crying on the phone with him because I was so moved by it, he said, “I don’t think you even understand yet how much this experience means to you.” I am still being impacted by it. So, the lesson that I wish to impart to you is this: those of us who have had the privilege to be in the right places at the right times instead of the wrong ones have as much to learn from these students about courage, adversity, and love for learning as we can teach them about reading and writing. Now, more than ever, we must support their valuable voices.