The College Unbound Prison Education Program

College Unbound Prison Education Program

College Unbound's Prison Education Program is designed to enable students to complete a BA in Organizational Leadership in Change, regardless of their incarceration status. CU awarded its first BA inside the ACI in 2022.
The Prison Education Program was founded in 2015 as the Prison Bridge Program offering initially a 24 credit sequence of courses for the Men’s Medium Facility at the Adult Correctional Institution (ACI) of Rhode Island and soon grew to supporting over 100 students in 2017 across four facilities. Funding through the Lumina Foundation ($400,000 2016-2018) and the ECMC Foundation ($800,000 in 2017 and 150,000 in 2019) supported this work’s development. This allowed faculty training as well as curricular development. Developing from a 24 credit 2-year sequence in 2015, the College refined its work into a yearlong 15 credit sequence and deep investment in transition planning and support as students navigate reentry.
It is critical that College Unbound’s mission be felt by any learner the institution touches. Working in partnership with the ACI, the Prison Education Program supports incarcerated students in four facilities on the campus (Men’s Minimum, Men’s Medium, Men’s Maximum, and Women’s Facility) but also with students as they navigate re-entry, and with the extended families of incarcerated peoples. The program is not simply a series of course offerings– but stands as an integral part of College Unbound through cohort-based and community connected support. The work CU does inside the ACI, in-transition, and with learners in-relation to the generational trauma of incarceration, is the truest reflection of the words of its mission and vision statements.
The students in the Prison Education Program have the same degree requirements as other College Unbound students. They take the same courses, with the same learning objectives and expectations for rigor in student work. When the instructional delivery happens in the correctional facility, faculty reproduce, to the extent possible, pedagogical and community-building approaches emphasized in all of the College’s courses: learning as members of cohorts is emphasized; prior learning and students’ lived experience are lifted up; and students do exhibitions each semester and are recognized as knowledge creators.
College Unbound’s curriculum in the ACI starts with a cohort based one year intensive 15-credit series of course offerings designed as a post-AA experience. We prioritize a 1-year experience given the restrictions of the ACI and the uncertainty of length of engagement with students.  Once a student completes this course sequence, they are able to submit prior learning portfolios for assessment for additional requirements towards their BA. For learners who have completed a Associate’s Degree inside the ACI and their 15 credit CU cohort experience, CU offers additional classes to fulfill degree requirements towards their BA.
The use of academic technology in the Prison Education Program is carefully aligned with program and school-wide academic objectives. It supports connection, learning, and archiving of students’ interactions with each other and with course materials. This alignment is true throughout the program, both after re-entry, and inside the ACI with adjustments. Students have an active role in the choice of, and use of, technology to ensure that they are able to control the terms and speed of their onboarding and support, and can access offerings throughout the institution.
This use of technology is challenged by restrictions on access and support inside the ACI. Learners on the inside do not currently have access to computer communication technology. However, the program has worked to get clearance for internet-free devices. We also use phones for communication as needed and letter writing when appropriate.
The College is able to make good use of technology to extend re-entry support. Each student receives a computer and one-on-one technology support and training as needed, to ensure that they are able to continue as CU students fully accessing the online course.
One critical curricular piece the College has struggled to embed within the ACI program is its practice of weekly one-on-ones with students. This has been a critical part of our engagement, student support, and student success strategy since the founding of the school but because of limited access to incarcerated students, we have had to default to our one-on-ones being through phone calls or squeezed into smaller pockets of time.
The College has addressed challenges with its administration of the program. A full-time Prison Initiative and Transition Coordinator, Bonnie Clarke, was hired in the summer of 2023 to manage day-to-day operations. The Coordinator reports directly to Jose Rodriguez, the Assistant Vice President for Community and Belonging, who is a member of the executive leadership team. She is now the College’s principal liaison with correctional facility staff and has already established good working relationships. This will ensure that the coordination and communication challenges that the program has had in the past will not resurface, or will be flagged immediately so that they can be addressed quickly. There is also now a board committee with specific oversight responsibilities for the program. You can read the most recent report of Jose Rodriguez, our AVP for Community and Belonging, to the board here.