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A Liberating Educational Experience: What it’s Like Teaching Inside a Federal Prison for ACC

FCI Englewood facility
By Joelle Milholm, ACC English Department

This summer, I have had the unique opportunity to teach in a place I have never been before: a prison. Thanks to a new ACC program that is working to help inmates at the FCI Englewood facility earn an Associate of Applied Science in Business with a focus in entrepreneurship, I got the program kicked off by teaching English 121 (Freshman Composition) and CCR094 (College Composition and Reading) to a cohort of 10 incarcerated men. The 10-week courses will come to an end on Aug. 9, but, so far, the classes have been transformative for all involved. However, in order for this program to continue, we need more instructors, especially with business backgrounds, who want to teach in the program to help these students earn their degrees and be better prepared to successfully rejoin society when they are released.

From my perspective, the last three semesters of teaching – through a pandemic that required a shift to virtual and included adaptations, flexibility, and constant challenges to keeps students engaged — have been the most challenging of my eight-year teaching career. This summer, on the other hand, has been a breath of fresh air. Four days a week, I go to work in the prison, entering through a metal detector, being escorted to our classroom, and teaching without computers or the internet. While the set-up demands change and creativity, it’s also provided a back-to-basics atmosphere centered around the importance of education and its transformative power. The students at FCI Englewood are hungry for knowledge and opportunities, and they are driven by a relentless work ethic. No one has missed a class session. Every student has turned in every single assignment. Our thought-provoking class discussions bring together diverse experiences and perspectives that foster an inspiring learning environment. The correctional officers from the education department at the prison are fully supportive and can attest to the change they see in the inmates.

The students have expressed gratitude and have been one of the most respectful and engaged classes I have ever taught, if not the best. One student simply said, “It’s just great to think again.” There are light-bulb moments daily, as well as steady improvements in their writing, despite not having all the things that we’ve come to rely on like Google, spell-check, and the luxury of making changes to written documents as opposed to re-writing drafts by hand. With college composition behind them, these students are ready to take their other prerequisites like public speaking and macro or microeconomics, as well as their packed business slate of accounting, business, finance, management, and marketing courses.

When it came to materials, we had donations of books from the English Department and Penguin Random House. Supplies came from ACC’s budget and can be ordered according to what the instructor needs. ACC’s in-house printshop WordGraphics helped with everything from handouts to syllabi in making sure the students have all the resources they need. ACC’s librarians Courtney Johnson and Mitch Cota also generated research packets with a wide variety of eight sources for each student on their research topic of choice. Even though the students are not on campus, there are many resources on campus to support the program that we can bring to the students.

ACC’s mission is “To provide innovative and responsive educational and economic opportunities in an accessible, inclusive environment that promotes success for students, employees, and the communities we serve.” This is not only a community we serve, but also an underserved community. While these men have committed crimes, they are serving time for their mistakes. They aren’t taking this opportunity lightly. The degree, with each and every class, will help these individuals and their families post-release.

This is also an investment in our society. According to the RAND Corporation,

“More than 2.2 million people are locked up in American prisons. About 700,000 prisoners are released into their communities every year, and approximately 40 percent of them will find themselves back behind bars within three years. But a landmark RAND study shows participation in any kind of educational program while behind bars can help break the cycle. RAND found that correctional education programs substantially reduced an individual's risk of being reincarcerated and that such programs are cost effective—every dollar invested in correctional education saves nearly five dollars in reincarceration costs over three years.”

This is education at its best. I am very grateful for this experience and highly recommend it. We need instructors who want to teach these classes, starting with Intro to Business this fall. We would love to involve business partners from the community to help. If you are interested, please email me at joelle [dot] milholm [at] arapahoe [dot] edu.