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Dean’s Day at Your Desk: Exploring the transformative power of CAPS Prison Education Project 

If you head west on Interstate 70 to Wentzville, then north on Route 61, you will pass through rolling hills and wide-open farm land. When you get to Bowling Green, hang a left on Route 54 and you will eventually end up at a facility filled with large pink buildings surrounded by an intricate fencing system – the Missouri Department of Corrections – Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center (WERDCC). 

The hundred-mile drive feels worlds away from the historic stone buildings of Danforth Campus, yet it is a drive that draws many of Washington University’s top faculty each year. 

The drive is happily made in early April by Dean Sean Armstrong from the School of Continuing & Professional Studies (CAPS). Dean Armstrong joined members of the School of Continuing & Professional Studies Prison Education Project (PEP) for his first Dean’s Day at your Desk. The quarterly program gives the dean a chance to shadow front line staff and instructors to learn more about their programs, needs, and focus. 

After passing through a metal detector, being issued a personal body alarm, and clearing three different checkpoints, Armstrong joined PEP Director Kevin Windhauser and PEP WERDCC Academic Program Manager Ella Siegrist. Their goal for the day was to visit with a cohort of incarcerated individuals in the PEP program and give Armstrong a first-hand look at the impact of the program.  

During a study hall, students had a chance to visit individually with Armstrong.  They shared the variety of projects they were working on ranging from creating flyers and posters for a design class, doing algebra homework, and conducting a variety of research using an innovative computer system. The system was specifically designed by the CAPS PEP program to help incarcerated students communicate with their professors. 

“It is the opportunity of a lifetime,” one of the students told Armstrong. “It is a chance for us to focus on more than living in the prison.” 

“I have been in prisons for 38 years and your PEP program has done a lot to improve life for us in this system,” another student agreed. 

Students complimented the instructors and staff who worked with them each week, highlighting the importance of those relationships. 

“When you are in these classrooms you are treated as a human being and have respect,” said one student. “This program has changed my life in so many ways. I tell my daughter that she is going to grow up and go to WashU just like her mommy.” 

“I didn’t think I could do it,” said another student. “But the PEP staff is so good at supporting us and helping us to get through it.” 

Amstrong said that determination to succeed really embodied what it means to be a CAPS student, no matter where they are learning from. 

“I like how they understand the opportunity ahead of them. There’s an attitude a CAPS student needs to have, and it’s a very serious attitude,” he said, adding that the PEP students’ determination reminded him of quote from his own dissertation chair, Dr. Rosa Cintron, who said, “’Your desire to learn counts more than any other qualification, and seriousness more than brilliance.’” 

Several of the students pointed out how they felt about education while being incarcerated. 

“I am in my 30s now,” said one, “and that helps me to understand why education is so important and why things are taught the way they are, and how it all works together.” 

“Now that I have an opportunity to get a degree, I want to figure out how to use it when I get out,” said another. “It did not seem reachable when I was on the streets.” 

The students generally enter the PEP program in cohorts and typically take the same courses each semester which helps to develop a real sense of community for those participating. 

“That sense of community does not stop at the classroom door,” said one, noting that when they see each other outside of the classroom they have more to share than just being incarcerated. “We are WashU students, and we are going through this together. These are the people who I want to be with.” 

Incarcerated individuals are not given unfettered access to the internet, which makes learning in today’s digital environment particularly difficult. PEP addresses this issue by providing the students with custom laptops that can connect to a firewalled docking station in the classroom.  

The laptops, loaded with software designed by CAPS staff, allow students to have limited access to a special version of the Canvas learning management system when plugged into the dock. This system allows them to upload assignments and download important documents from their instructors so they can access the information outside of  time for studying and research.  

The system is not perfect however, as students cannot do direct research and instead must submit research requests and then wait, sometimes up to two weeks, for PEP volunteers to find relevant articles and upload them to Canvas.  

Armstrong said this is one of the benefits of the Dean’s Day at the Desk program – identifying gaps and figuring out ways to improve them. 

“Now that I know research speed is an issue, I can connect with the library staff on campus and talk about how we can improve things,” said Armstrong. “I hope there is going to be a chance to help solve the problem pretty quickly just by making the connection.” 

In June Armstrong will learn more about CAPS’ English Language Program when he visits with their director, Katie Brown, for the next Dean’s Day at your Desk.