Sixteen women at the Indiana Women’s Prison (IWP) on the west side of Indianapolis are now pursuing college degrees through Marian University. The opportunity is provided through the Women’s College Partnership, a joint venture between Marian and the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI).
Marian University has become the newest member of BPI’s Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, which collaborates with colleges and universities to catalyze, launch, and sustain college-in-prison programs across the country. Marian joins a diverse array of colleges and universities that make up the BPI Consortium including Bard, Goucher, Holy Cross, and Emerson colleges, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Vermont, Yale, Wesleyan, Villanova, and the University of Notre Dame. BPI spent nearly two years designing the program and fundraising for the launch of the Women’s College Partnership at IWP.
Admitted students at the maximum security prison will have the opportunity to first earn an Associate of Arts in liberal arts degree, followed by bachelor’s degrees, from Marian University, a Catholic university located less than seven miles from the prison. Classes are taught at the prison by Marian University and visiting faculty, using Marian University curriculum.
“At Marian University, increasing access to higher education is fundamental to our mission,” President Daniel J. Elsener said. “We are continually exploring ways to fill gaps in our community, whether it’s through improving healthcare for Hoosiers by opening a medical school or increasing access to higher education by starting a two-year college. Like the medical school and the two-year college, this partnership with Bard Prison Initiative and Indiana Department of Corrections is mission-driven. Through education, we can help these inmates by giving them the self-worth, confidence, skills and knowledge they need to become productive members of society.”
“If leaders in higher education are serious about diversity in education and preserving the place of the arts and sciences in American life, they must act boldly to engage new and different ambitious undergraduates,” Max Kenner, Executive Director of the Bard Prison Initiative, said. “We applaud Marian University’s bold step in this effort, are proud to be its partner, and celebrate the restoration of college within the Indiana Women’s Prison.”
BPI is not new to Indiana. Through the Consortium, BPI has partnered with University of Notre Dame and Holy Cross College’s Moreau College Initiative to offer Associate and Bachelor of Arts degrees at Westville Correctional Facility since 2013. Nationally, more than 900 students are currently enrolled in college through programs affiliated with BPI’s Consortium. Bard has awarded 543 degrees to students inside prisons in New York since 2001.
“Bard College has a long history of building new avenues of access, based on a commitment to the relationship between democracy and higher education,” Jessica Neptune, BPI’s Associate Director of National Projects and founder of the Women’s College Partnership, said. “These innovations include the Bard Prison Initiative, the Microcolleges at the Brooklyn Public Library and in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and Bard’s High School Early Colleges across the country. The Bard Prison Initiative’s partnership with Marian University at IWP represents another important iteration of this commitment.”
The program’s results speak for themselves. Nationally, nearly half of all people released from prison return. But for incarcerated students who have earned a college degree through BPI, the recidivism rate is a mere 2.5 percent.
“I am convinced that one of the most effective keys to reducing the rate of recidivism among those incarcerated in prison can be found in education,” Indiana Department of Correction Commissioner Robert Carter said. “This partnership with Marian University will change lives. It offers the opportunity for incarcerated women to receive higher education that will not only expand their knowledge base, it will greatly improve their chances of finding meaningful employment upon release. Education and employment together offer incarcerated inmates a future of self-reliance, and the opportunity to grow in ways that can improve their standing within their family and their community.”
Gay Lynn Crossley is one of four Marian University professors currently teaching classes for the Women’s College Partnership at Indiana Women’s Prison. Crossley, who teaches a first-year English course, says the semester is off to a great start and she is impressed with the students in her class.
“I’m truly inspired by this group of students,” Crossley said. “The writers have formed an enthusiastic community of women who are building the knowledge and skills necessary to create positive change in their worlds and the worlds of others. It’s a pleasure to read their work.”
Both Marian and BPI expect that the program will be expanded over time. That expansion will include admissions of new cohorts of students, the possibility of additional institutional partnerships and more degree options.