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New University program promotes educational initiatives for the incarcerated

| Thursday, December 1, 2022

In August, leaders of the major college-in-prison initiatives within the tri-campus community gathered to create the Notre Dame Programs for Education in Prison (NDPEP) housed within the Center for Social Concerns (CSC). The program offers a liberal arts education in prisons as well as expanding research geared toward improving prison education initiatives. NDPEP aids participants as they “re-enter their home communities and provide faculty and student opportunities for education and research on issues related to incarceration”, according to a University press release.

“The goal of bringing all these pieces together into NDPEP is to ensure that all the pieces doing similar work can communicate more easily and learn from each other by being housed in one place and being in regular communication,” James Shortall, associate director of the Center for Social Concerns said in an interview with The Observer.

He continued by talking about how the program represents the University’s mission.

“It contributes to the mission of the Center and Notre Dame by doing justice education and by increasing opportunities for justice education and research for the common good, where the idea would be to build up research efforts around all these elements that have just come together under the umbrella of NDPEP,” he said.  

Managing director Michael Hebbeler described how once different project directors decided their roles within the new program, the work was simple.

“It was, frankly, fairly easy, because each of the programs in existence is strong and robust and have been running well, and so it was a matter of understanding how they fit together,” he said.

For instance, assistant regional director for alumni and reentry services Justin McDevitt and research program manager Lindsay Paturalski were brought onto the initiative because of their respective skill sets, according to McDevitt.

“So rather than each program hiring its own independent person to do these things, we thought we could all work together and support the greater group of programs,” he explained.

The innovative aspect of NDPEP also lies in the capacity for the tri-campus students to become involved in the program, McDevitt noted.

“Both Lindsay and I are making it available for students to intern with NDPEP, both with research help for Lindsay and alumni reentry support for me,” McDevitt said. “We’ve had more than a handful of students already serve as interns and there are opportunities for Notre Dame students to get involved in helping in the Moreau College Initiative (MCI) office at Holy Cross.”

However, McDevitt explained such opportunities for undergraduate engagement through MCI specifically are “really limited” because the program encourages students inside the prison to mentor each other.

Nevertheless, Hebbeler noted there will be more opportunities for undergraduates to engage with the project, specifically in the “Inside-Out” program, a three-credit course offered in the spring.

“It is a course inside Westville Correctional Facility, where half the students are incarcerated and half of the students are traditional Notre Dame undergraduates. So we take vehicles out from campus to do class once a week inside a facility.”

The class requires an application which is still available for interested students.

McDevitt summarized the goal of the program by is “exposing undergraduates to inequities in our system and introducing them to the possibility of going inside a space where more marginalized people are compared to the campus.”

McDevitt also described how NDPEP addresses issues of equity and empowerment.

“What Lindsay and I have been doing for years is teaching college in prison as if it were college outside of prison,” he said. “So it’s less about opening people’s eyes to inequity and more of empowering people who wouldn’t normally get a chance to be educated.”

Hebbeler also described how the initiative benefits faculty.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for faculty, at Holy Cross College and at Notre Dame who are teaching the courses — in total about 40 — so it’s a robust college degree program, and many faculty will name it not only a rewarding experience but arguably the most powerful teaching experience they’ve had.”

Paturalski shared some of the research efforts to improve the program, emphasizing the ethics involved in the process.

“Our research is about program evaluation,” she said. “I think that’s really important, again for the equity aspect, that students feel empowered and that they do not think we are there possibly with some alternative motive.”

Paturalski noted the goal is to “make sure that they’re getting a quality education that is valuable to them as returning citizens, so we look at a lot of variables related to student success and academic quality and community-building.”

While NDPEP has focused its study on the all-male Westville Correctional Facility, the program hopes to expand its reach to imprisoned women because of the limited research on that demographic, according to Paturalski.

“While mass incarceration numbers have slowly been going down, the numbers of women being incarcerated have slowly gone up, even though men still are by far the highest number of people being incarcerated,” she said. “The fact that we’re going to be able to engage with and support women who are reentering society and getting their education is another really important aspect of what we’re doing and are only possible through the partnership, because Notre Dame can’t take our faculty down to Indianapolis to work with the Women’s College Partnership, together with Marian University and the Bard Prison Initiative.”

Shortall summarized the impact of NDPEP as forming “more and deeper opportunities both for justice education and for research for the common good around education in prison.”

McDevitt added that “even though our students in prison can’t come to campus while they’re incarcerated and our Notre Dame students, except for ‘Inside Out,’ can’t go inside the prison, we are very much the same in this goal.”

In addition, McDevitt stated the program will be a leader among newly emerging programs with similar missions.

“From a historical context, our programs have been around for ten years, in partnership with Holy Cross College, which houses the MCI program, and that’s pretty long compared to a lot of programs in the state,” McDevitt said. “A lot of programs are going to be starting, so NDPEP poises Notre Dame to be a leader in the field, both state-wide and beyond so it’s a really exciting time.”

McDevitt commended the collaboration between all three tri-campus schools.

“Holy Cross College is fundamental to this operation, and without Holy Cross, this does not happen,” he said. And we are excited about the possibility of the Saint Mary’s campus getting more involved. Faculty from all three campuses teach out there.”

James finalized by saying the work of the center, “serves Notre Dame’s mission to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice”. He concluded, “That’s part of the mission that we refer to all the time here, and NDPEP bringing together these programs at the center really does everything that sentence says and more”.

Contact Marcelle Couto at [email protected]

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About Marcelle Couto

Marcelle Couto is a first year student studying Philosophy and Theology. She is from São Paulo, Brazil, and she was born in Rochester Minnesota.

Contact Marcelle