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.”
After the course ended, students, faculty, and prison staff began meeting biweekly as a Think Tank to develop more programming at SCI-Greene. This group, named the Inspiring Change Collective, has created a book club facilitated by novelist and essayist Ann Pancake, increased access to mental health awareness strategies, and formed an inside advisory council for the degree program. The Collective is also working to strengthen vocational training, to develop a peer mentoring program, and to create a podcast that will showcase creative work and news relevant to incarcerated people.
“The purpose of HEPI is not rehabilitation but transformation. We believe education is essential for that process to have any real meaning,” Darrin Lester, a member of the HEPI Advisory Council, said. “As someone who has spent close to 30 years in and out of prison, I can attest that we do better when we know better. That better can only be realized through critical and analytical thought. It helps us to see the world around us through a different perspective. More importantly it allows us to see ourselves and our potential in a new light. I can’t becomes, I can.”
For more information on WVU HEPI, including ways to support the initiative, contact Katy Ryan, Director, at firstname.lastname@example.org or Rayna Momen, Program Coordinator, at email@example.com.
Advisory Council members
Outside Advisory Council (2022-2023)
Lauri Andress, Associate Dean, University of New Mexico College of Population Health
Laura Brady, Director, Center for Writing Excellence, WVU
Lupe Davidson, Woodburn Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies; Associate Dean for Social Justice, WVU
Jihad el-Amin, Program Specialist, WVU
Nisan Hubbard, Teaching Assistant Professor, Academic Advisor, Biology, WVU
John Kilwein, Chair, Associate Professor, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Political Science, WVU
Darrin Lester, Master’s Student, Social Work, WVU
Rayna Momen, Program Coordinator and Instructor, Higher Education in Prison Initiative, WVU
Gloria Negrete-Lopez, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, WVU
Jim Nolan, Director of Graduate Studies, Professor of Sociology, WVU
Ann Pancake, Writer-in-Residence, WVU Humanities Center, WVU
Katy Ryan, Eberly Family Professor of Outstanding Teaching; Professor of English, WVU
Ellen Skirvin, Lecturer of English, Penn State University; Appalachian Prison Book Project Board of Directors
Lou Slimak, Assistant Provost for Undergraduate Curriculum, WVU
Inside Advisory Council (2023)
Kyle, Neil, Todd, Rudy, Destinee, Jodi, Katy, Dakota
In the News
OPINION | All people deserve access to higher education
Feb 1, 2023 - The Daily Athenaeum
Greene Holds Closing for Inside-Out Program with WVU
December 15, 2022 12:00 AM — PA Correctional Newsfront
WVU recognized nationally for community engagement through partnership with long-running
prison book program
Sep 27, 2022 - WVUToday
Incarcerated students receive credit through WVU Inside Out program
Dec 3, 2019 - The Daily Athenaeum