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Ohio State brings classes and students to Ohio prisons

Ohio Prison Education Exchange Project provides liberal arts education

By design, prisons are not stimulating places, said Mary Thomas, a professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at The Ohio State University. This is why prison education programs are important.

“In spaces of incarceration, there’s very little that nourishes the brain and the heart and the soul,” she said.

Thomas, along with Tiyi Morris, associate professor in the Department of African American and African Studies, directs the Ohio Prison Education Exchange Project, or OPEEP. The program brings Ohio State classes and students to prisons in Ohio – currently, OPEEP is teaching at facilities in Lima, Mansfield, Lancaster, London and Marysville – allowing incarcerated individuals to take college classes.

“What Tiyi and I work on is always driven by a mission to create high-quality higher education in prison facilities,” Thomas said. “As higher educators, we wanted to build something that is challenging and rigorous, something that is focused on social change rather than just keeping people busy.”

“Committing a crime doesn’t erase a person’s humanity,” Morris said. “Our carceral system is designed to do that, so providing an education can be a way to help a person maintain their humanity in the face of a system that day-to-day tries to strip them of it.”

There is always interest at the prisons, both agree.

“We’ve never had a warden say no to the program,” Thomas said.

The challenge usually stems from the low enrollment of campus students. The issue is not a lack of interest, Thomas said. Students today are busier than ever. Driving to a facility for a class they could take on campus may not work with their schedules. Still, the campus students who participate find the experience transformative.

Muheeb Hijazeen, a third-year engineering student, took a class about the Civil Rights Movement with Morris. It was the relationships with his fellow students that he found most impactful.

“I loved my time in OPEEP. The connections, lessons and conversations we had were so worth it. The classes were smaller in size and were discussion-based. This allowed us not only to bond but also to build deeper relations that were meaningful.”

Thomas echoed this sentiment.

“If you talked to an incarcerated student and a campus student from the same class, they will both tell you how amazing the other is and how much each group brings to the classroom in terms of intellectual heft and talent.”

One thing Thomas and Morris are clear about is that OPEEP does not other-ize the incarcerated students.

“We don’t want this to be about prison topics,” Thomas said. “Prisons are not there to serve as tourist locations for campus students. We want this to be a full educational project.”

An OPEEP class poses for a silly photo

Over the years, class topics have included drawing, philosophy, earth sciences, creative writing and literature. The only real limitation is what supplies can be brought into the prison. Incarcerated students do not have access to the internet or university libraries. Many must handwrite assignments, which can be onerous, Thomas said. So classes must be configured in an equitable way.

“The course content, the learning objectives, the goals, the expectations are all the same – to the extent they can be,” Morris said.

In addition to campus and incarcerated students having the same opportunities, all Ohio State students can participate in OPEEP: There are courses available at the main Ohio State campus as well as in Lima, Mansfield and Newark. More campuses mean more prison locations have access to the program and more people can participate.

“We’re the flagship university of the state. Being a Buckeye is something that brings honor and respect to people’s lives, to their families,” Thomas said. “To be able to say, ‘I’m a student at Ohio State’ is a point of pride for the incarcerated learners.”

What benefits incarcerated students often benefits campus students as well. Changes that are made to courses to make them suitable for prisons often lead to tweaks in the classroom.

“It’s not just about offering classes,” Morris said. “It’s about changing how we teach and learn.”

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