The WVU Higher Education in Prison Initiative (HEPI) is committed to improving educational access and equity in the Appalachian region.
The WVU Higher Education in Prison Initiative (HEPI) emerged from a decades-long partnership between West Virginia University (WVU) and the Appalachian Prison Book Project (APBP). The central work of the initiative is to build an associate degree program at State Correctional Institution Greene (SCI-Greene), a maximum-security prison in Waynesburg, PA. The initiative aims to build an intellectual and creative network that bridges the divide of prison walls and makes possible a more diverse and inclusive Mountaineer community.
HEPI raises money to cover costs for tuition, books, and instruction. A three-year grant from the Laughing Gull Foundation has provided critical support along with the steady support of APBP.
“Securing multi-year funding from Laughing Gull in 2021 validated the ongoing work we have been doing to better extend higher education opportunities to this often overlooked population,” said Program Coordinator Rayna Momen. “We are grateful to the various stakeholders for believing in our vision.”
In addition to offering credit-bearing classes in prison, HEPI develops leadership from people who have been directly impacted by the criminal punishment system, provides support to returning citizens who want to pursue higher education, and integrates restorative practices and a commitment to racial justice into everyday operations.
Rudy, an inside student from the inaugural cohort at SCI-Greene, captured the core of the initiative:
“The only true way forward in this maze of ‘rehabilitation’ is for both sides to understand each other. The only way to understand each other is to interact—you can’t interact if the doors to the prison and your heart are closed.”
In Fall 2022, HEPI launched the associate degree program at SCI-Greene in partnership with Waynesburg University. Upon completion of the sixty credit curriculum, students will earn an Associate of Arts degree in Professional Studies from Waynesburg University.
HEPI is committed to reciprocal modes of learning, to broadening horizons and hopes, and to joy. Classes are taught by WVU faculty who experience a revitalized commitment to teaching and, without access to technology, develop more interactive and collaborative classroom strategies. Similarly, WVU on-campus undergraduates and graduate students develop skills and passions, pursue new career and educational paths, and name this experience as the most impactful in their college lives.
Dr. Katy Ryan, WVU English Professor and HEPI Director, taught the inaugural Inside-Out course. “This American drama class was one of the highlights of my 23 years of college teaching. Each week students collaborated on original performances in response to plays we read by August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, ntozoke shange, Clifford Odets, Tony Kushner, and Quiara Algería Hudes. Students made brilliant props, wrote poems and songs, and shared incredibly moving performances. They also built a beautiful community dedicated to lifelong growth and learning.”