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Higher Education in Prison Initiative

The WVU Higher Education in Prison Initiative (HEPI) is committed to improving educational access and equity in the Appalachian region. Our main goal is to offer for-credit college courses and a degree pathway to people incarcerated at SCI-Greene, a maximum-security prison in southwestern Pennsylvania. College-in-prison programs create space for intellectual and personal growth and extend the benefits of higher education to one of the most under-resourced populations. Classes generate direction, hope, and purpose for everyone involved.

This initiative will lead to a more diverse and inclusive Mountaineer community, will strengthen the University’s commitment to economic and racial justice, and will generate high-impact teaching and research.

give to HEPI

In Fall 2022, HEPI enrolled the first cohort of students in the new Associate Degree program at SCI-Greene, with grant funding from the Laughing Gull Foundation. The $65,000 in funds, per year, for the three-year term of the grant, will be used for instructional costs, graduate assistantships, teacher training, supplies and tuition. 

A thirteen-person WVU Advisory Council assists with decision-making, and we are planning to create an SCI-Greene Advisory Council composed of students, staff, and administrators.  

WVU will partner with Waynesburg University to offer the associate degree. Upon completion of the 60-credit curriculum, students will earn an Associate of Arts degree from Waynesburg University.


  Person places books on a shelf

(Photo credit: Raymond Thompson, Jr. )

“Every step of the process was an opportunity to think through how we can build an equitable and sustainable education program,” said Katy Ryan, WVU English professor and co-writer of the proposal. “We're so thankful to Laughing Gull for inviting our application and to the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences and WVU Provost's Office for their support. Also, to the English department that has done so much over the years to ensure people in prison have access to books and education.”

HEPI was invited to submit a proposal to the Laughing Gull Foundation because of its long partnership with the Appalachian Prison Book Project. A local nonprofit, APBP provides free books to people imprisoned in six states, creates prison book clubs, and has paid tuition costs for WVU classes in prison.

Women places book on a library shelf

(Photo credit: Raymond Thompson, Jr. )

“Securing this multi-year funding validates the ongoing work we have been doing to better extend higher education opportunities to this often overlooked population,” Rayna Momen, sociology doctoral candidate and co-writer of the proposal, said. “We are grateful to the various stakeholders for believing in our vision.” 

HEPI builds on almost two decades of WVU Inside-Out Prison Exchange classes, a program that brings on-campus students and incarcerated students together to take a course inside prison. Dr. Jim Nolan in Sociology has been offering WVU Inside-Out classes for many years. 

“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.”

The grant was made through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University.

For more information on WVU HEPI including ways to support the Initiative, contact Katy Ryan, Director, at or Rayna Momen, Program Coordinator, at

Advisory Council members

Lauri Andress, Public Health Analyst Areas of Emphasis: Social Justice and Health Equity

Connected to broader interests in the achievement of equity through structural and policy change, predicated on the social determinants of health (SDOH) and community engagement, Dr. Andress provides equity-oriented leadership, scholarship, and instruction in public health settings, community driven initiatives, schools of medicine, and government and political settings. Most recently she took a gap year as Associate Dean for Inclusion, Diversity and Community Engagement and Associate Professor in the Department of Medical Education at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine (GCSOM). Within the School of Public Health at West Virginia University (WVU) from 2013 to 2021, Dr. Andress served as the Assistant Dean for Public Health Practice and Workforce Development and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Policy, Management and Leadership. A major outcome of her time at WVU was research that grappled with how we measure the population health of underrepresented (UR), marginalized, and oppressed groups. This resulted in a website on the intersection of place and health in West Virginia. Dr. Andress secured a Master of Public Health and Ph.D. in Community Health Science (Univ. of Texas Health Sciences Center, major in health policy; concentration in Management and Policy Sciences), and a law degree from South Texas College of Law, Houston, Texas. Dr. Andress' early career was spent working in public health governance and political settings. From 2007 to 2010, she led teams that launched the Centers for Health Equity in Wisconsin and Louisville, Kentucky.  

Laura Brady, WVU Professor of English 

Laura directs the Center for Writing Excellence (CWE) within the Department of English. The CWE oversees writing programs that serve some 8,000 undergraduate students a year, provides leadership for curriculum and program design, maintains and strengthens faculty development, and pursues support for undergraduate writing activities. 

Lupe Davidson, Associate Dean for Social Justice, Faculty Development and Innovation for the Eberly College, and Woodburn Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies

Lupe received her Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Duquesne University. Previously she has been the L.J. Semrod Presidential Professor of Arts and Sciences, Associate Professor and Director of Women’s and Gender Studies, Co-Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Center for Social Justice, Assistant Professor and Interim Director of Business Communication and Assistant Professor of African American Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

In 2017, she was the recipient of the Black Girls Rock—Maria del Guadalupe Davidson Rock Star Award, named in her honor, and the Women’s and Gender Studies Jill Irvine Leadership Award. She has led a study abroad course in Uganda on ‘Women Creating Social Change,” related to her interdisciplinary, collaborative research in the region. Her co-edited book Our Black Sons Matter: Mothers Talk about Fears, Sorrows and Hopes (with George Yancey and Susan Hadley) was named one of the American Library Association’s “Top 10 Diverse Nonfiction Books of 2016”.

Jihad El-Amin, WVU Program Specialist 

Jihad El-Amin is a former K-8 educator, a youth life coach, and a staff member in WVU’s Eberly College advising office, focusing on retention.

Nisan Hubbard,  WVU Biology, Teaching Assistant Professor 

Nisan Hubbard is a new member of HEPI. His interests include accessibility of education and scholarship. 

John Kilwein, WVU Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science

John Kilwein’s research and teaching interests include law and politics, the politics and policy of civil legal aid, domestic violence, and the state courts of last resort. 

Darrin Lester, WVU MSW Student and HEPI Reentry Coordinator  

Darrin has served numerous prison sentences in Virginia and West Virginia. In June 2021 he was released after 12 consecutive years in Mt. Olive Correctional Complex. While incarcerated, Darrin created a program designed to encourage positive life choices. The Olive Tree was launched in 2014 with 25 men attending weekly classes for a year. Participants commit to a set of rules and values and agree to abstain from all gang activity, assaultive behaviors, gambling, drugs, and alcohol. We challenge ourselves to be better today than we were yesterday, and we hold one another accountable.

Darrin has a unique vantage point in understanding the need for education and transformative programs. He has launched several programs within the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He spearheaded the first Hospice program in the WVDCR, now operating in two facilities. He created a partnership with the foster care system of West Virginia, providing over $5000 in hygiene products for children. The hygiene drive’s success was due to the generosity of incarcerated people in two facilities, Mt. Olive and St. Mary’s Correctional Complexes.

Darrin has a passion for those who are or were caught up in the cycle of addiction, poverty, and ignorance simply because he also suffered from those same mindsets. Darrin’s plan is to work closely with this demographic in hopes of helping others to understand past trauma and ways to heal from those experiences. He is a staunch advocate for education within the prison industrial complex. Darrin received his Bachelor of Arts in 2019 while incarcerated at Mt. Olive Correctional Complex.

Rayna Momen, WVU Sociology Doctoral Candidate

Rayna Momen is Program Coordinator of the Higher Education in Prison Initiative and a longtime Appalachian Prison Book Project volunteer. They have been assisting with college courses in prisons since 2017. Momen’s doctoral research focuses on the criminalization of transgender people. As a public sociologist and queer criminologist, they seek to make academic research more accessible, while also highlighting the policy implications.

Gloria Negrete-Lopez, Assistant Professor in the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies 

Gloria Negrete-Lopez is a new HEPI Advisory Council member. Her research is heavily influenced by her childhood experiences of having a parent incarcerated and deported. The letters, poems, and drawings by her father documented his experiences of incarceration and instilled in Negrete-Lopez the importance of artistic and creative expression. Currently, her research examines the important role of art and cultural work in disrupting dominant narratives of migrant criminality. She is currently working on a book project that views the artistic and cultural work of migration activists as spaces of knowledge-making, co-creativity, and praxis wherein they challenge violent anti-immigrant discourses that criminalize and punish migrant communities. Additionally, her teaching and scholarly work reflect her commitment to creating learning communities that view art as a powerful tool for social change.

Jim Nolan, Chair and Professor of Sociology 

Dr. Nolan teaches courses in the area of crime and social control. His research currently focuses on neighborhood dynamics, police procedures, crime measurement, hate crimes, and equity and inclusion in higher education.

His professional career began as a police officer in Wilmington, Delaware. In 13 years with that department, he worked in a variety of divisions, including patrol, community policing, organized crime and vice, and planning and research. He is a 1992 graduate of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) National Academy. Just prior to joining the faculty at West Virginia University, Dr. Nolan worked for the FBI as a unit chief in the Crime Analysis, Research and Development Unit that provided management oversight for the National Hate Crime Data Collection Program. 

His recent publications have appeared in the American Behavioral Scientist; Journal of Quantitative Criminology; Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice; Justice, Research & Policy; Information Sciences; Policing & Society; Criminal Justice Studies; Homicide Studies; Journal of Criminal Justice, and The American Sociologist.

Ann Pancake, Service Associate Professor, English. 

Ann Pancake is an Appalachian author and researcher whose publications address environmental justice, social justice, economic inequality in Appalachia, and Appalachian literature and history. She is HEPI’s community liaison and coordinator for our prison book club.  

Katy Ryan, WVU Professor of English; Eberly Family Professor of Outstanding Teaching 

Katy Ryan is Director of the Higher Education in Prison Initiative and Founder of the Appalachian Prison Book Project. She has been teaching college classes in prison and learning from incarcerated scholars and writers for many years. Her research focuses on the history and literature of imprisonment in the U.S. In 2012, she edited a collection on the death penalty in American culture and literature, Demands of the Dead: Executions, Storytelling, and Activism in the United States. 

Ellen Skirvin, Penn State University, Lecturer of English; APBP, Board Member

​​Ellen Skirvin serves on the Board of the Appalachian Prison Book Project. She also writes fiction and teaches composition and creative writing at Penn State University. 

Lou Slimak, Associate Provost for Curriculum and Assessment 

As Associate Provost for Curriculum and Assessment at West Virginia University, Dr. Louis Slimak provides institutional leadership in the areas of program development, review, assessment, and quality assurance, academic and co-curricular assessment, academic policy, and operational evaluation. As the institution’s Accreditation Liaison Officer, he also assures that the institution’s academic policies, procedures, systems, and practices operate in accordance with both the institution’s accrediting body and any related areas of federal and state compliance.

Dr. Slimak joined WVU in 2016 as Director of Academic Excellence and Assessment in the Teaching and Learning Commons where he worked to reconstitute the University Assessment Council, overhaul the institution’s program review process, and work closely with Faculty Senate to improve institutional assessment practices (especially for general education) and curricular review. As a member of the Provost’s Office, Dr. Slimak has continued to work with Faculty Senate to improve communication and transparency about academic policy change and curriculum changes, increase the quality of standardized data used in program review, and develop a system of professional development and support for faculty and staff in positions with assessment and curricular responsibilities.

Prior to joining WVU, Dr. Slimak worked for Wentworth Military Academy and College in rural Lexington, Missouri, where he was the institution’s accreditation liaison officer, assessment coordinator, department chair, and faculty member.

Dr. Slimak is also a peer reviewer for the Higher Learning Commission and does regular work with the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission’s state-wide assessment council.