Earlier this year, BPI proudly announced its newest member of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison: the Augustana Prison Education Program (APEP). BPI launched the Consortium in 2009 to facilitate the further establishment of college-in-prison nationwide. The Consortium currently represents fourteen colleges and universities across ten states
In close partnership with the Bard Prison Initiative, Augustana College launched the Augustana Prison Education Program (APEP) in 2021, all while navigating the new challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the helm of APEP is Executive Director, Dr. Sharon Varallo, a professor of Communication Studies at Augustana. BPI’s National Engagement team worked closely with Augustana faculty on technical assistance and program building starting in 2019. In 2021, Dr. Varallo participated in the BPI Summer Residency for emerging practitioners. In 2022, APEP received a $50,000 capacity building grant from BPI which will go to supporting APEP’s development of an in-prison computer lab, data collection and analysis, and the launch of an APEP website.
“BPI has been a source of inspiration and BPI staff have been incredibly generous mentors since the inception of the Augustana Prison Education Program,” Dr. Varallo stated via email. “The residency was essential to the success of our first year. We are so honored to have been invited to join the BPI Consortium and can only hope that we are known by the company we keep.”
Establishing APEP, Dr. Varallo has expressed, is “the one thing I’m qualified to do to help generate positive change.” The “qualification” Dr. Varallo refers to is actually two-fold: it refers both to her academic credentials, as well the painful experience of having her daughter in jail for a wrongful conviction. “When my daughter faced a situation with injustice,” Dr. Varallo said, “that shined a light on what I needed to do with my knowledge and power in this world.”
Like BPI, APEP is focused on increasing access to educational opportunities, especially to people who are often denied rigorous and enriching pathways to higher education. That means recognizing that education is, in and of itself, valuable, and worth expanding and delivering to as many people as possible. This is a sentiment that Professor Jason Mahn, who specializes in religion and teaches for APEP at East Moline Correctional Center, has echoed in Journey: The Magazine of St. Paul Lutheran Church. “While cutting back on recidivism rates is often a primary goal, we at Augustana tend to measure success in much wider terms. Thinking critically, problem-solving, and developing curiosity, empathy, and an embrace of ambiguity are skills that are good in and of themselves.”
Likewise, Dr. Varallo has said “At Augustana, we believe in the power of education for people to learn about their options, and be transformed, even if they don’t have the regular channels to get to the main campus of Augustana.” Her hope is that, through APEP, more people in the community begin to realize “that people who are incarcerated are not different…They are bright and gifted and have as much to give as anyone, and sometimes they are motivated even more. It’s just untenable that we would throw their lives away.”
To learn more about APEP, please see the following articles and videos below: