Earning a degree behind bars: WU Prison Education Project changes lives 

| Contributing Writer 

Prison Education Project students Terrell Reed, George Putney, Solomon Evans and Ben Wilkinson (Izzy Silver/Student Life).

Every weekday from 8:00-10:50 a.m. and 1:00-3:45 p.m., the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center (MECC) Education Annex stirs to life. Anywhere from six to 20 students pour into each of the three classrooms. Adorned with a study hall, computer lab, and multiple whiteboards, the Education Annex might be indistinguishable from an average American college, if not for the facility’s barren surroundings and the presence of armed security. 

MECC is one of the two host sites of WashU’s Prison Education Project (PEP), offering a liberal arts education to incarcerated individuals. Choosing from a varied course list, students have the chance to earn a degree — either an Associate in Arts or a Bachelor of Science in Integrated Studies. 

Joe Angeles/Washington University

Terrell Reed was inducted into the Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor Society at PEP spring 2022 graduation (photo courtesy Joe Angeles).

Terrell Reed

Terrell Reed was surprised by his admission into the program. “I was confident I wasn’t gonna get in…and then I got the call for the interview,” he said. Given the high demand for the program, PEP has an intensive application process consisting of a personal statement essay, a handwritten exam, and an interview. Over 70 prospective students applied for the program’s first cohort; however, only 30 applicants could be accommodated.

After his admission, much of Reed’s daily routine centered itself around his pursuit of school and religion. “As of right now, sun up, I spend time with God first — get my daily routine on. I study for a couple of hours if I don’t have class. Religious studies again, then I work out,” he detailed. Through the prison’s chapel, Reed obtains religious books for the upkeep of his religious scholarship.

Reed hopes to graduate sometime between this summer and the fall of next year. However, he has a few years left on his sentence before he can further his mission of representing God through music.

Reed developed an affinity for Christian hip-hop music while incarcerated. “I was singing Christian contemporary music and met friends here who were rappers. We started to blend the two together.” Reed sings, plays guitar, and even writes his own music. In the future, he wants to use these talents to provide music therapy in juvenile counseling.

Reed is grateful for PEP and the structure it brings to his life, but he said that his incarcerated experience has been far from easy. Reed noted that MECC’s mental health resources are abysmal. “Struggling with anxiety and depression…there’s a lack of counselors, resources, and peer support here,” he said.  

George Putney already has two degrees and is acquiring a third while serving his prison sentence (Izzy Silver/Student Life).

George Putney

Compared to the other PEP students, George Putney describes himself as “an atypical prisoner.” 

“I had a good life, a professional career [before prison],” he said. However, he said that while driving intoxicated, he committed involuntary manslaughter, resulting in his sentence at MECC.

Putney entered MECC already having earned a Bachelor of Science degree and a Master of Business Administration degree. He’s maintained a great support system while incarcerated, receiving multiple visitors per weekend from friends and family. However, he reflected on his time at MECC as “very much a humbling experience.” 

While mentoring other incarcerated individuals, Putney was recruited by Jennifer Hudson, the former PEP program manager, and asked to apply. Putney was surprised since he already possessed two degrees. “Given my background, I didn’t think it was available to me,” he said. However, he’s found that the program allows him to “spend productive time in a prison where, otherwise, you would be spending time in an unproductive way.” 

Putney said PEP has built his confidence in himself. It’s been a long time since he’s been to school, and he was worried that he would have trouble learning as an older man. 

“I wanted to see at my age if I had intellect, curiosity and drive, and academic ability. Turns out I have all three,” he said. 

After completing his sentence, Putney wants to pursue a Master of Social Work degree at the Brown School. He plans to put his degree toward re-entry services, helping formerly incarcerated people find jobs, learn financial literacy, and access mental health help. “Anyone coming out of prison re-entering society runs into many roadblocks,” Putney observed. “They walk out with $8 on a credit card and a ‘Good luck.’” 

Putney described PEP as a lifesaver. “Not only to me, but the majority of people in the program,” he said. However, Putney noted that learning conditions are not ideal. “I wish we had better facilities,” he commented. “Classrooms are cramped and windowless.” 

Ben Wilkinson credits his critical thinking skills to the education he’s receiving while incarcerated (Izzy Silver/Student Life).

Ben Wilkinson

Ben Wilkinson always expected to enter MECC. “Before prison, I was a career criminal. I was planning on coming to the penitentiary. Well — not planning, but [I] knew it was inevitable,” he said. 

However, since enrolling in PEP, Wilkinson’s views have shifted. Working towards a Bachelor of Arts degree in social sciences, his new focuses are on his education and getting out of prison. “Before getting in, I was irrational and didn’t think about my actions. [PEP] helped me learn critical thinking,” he said. 

Wilkinson is scheduled to graduate from the program in one year and five months, the same time he’s expected to get out of MECC. Graduation time differs depending on the individual. Students generally take anywhere from one to six classes per semester, but many want to space out classes to accommodate their time at the center. Wilkinson was incarcerated when he was 20 and has been in prison for nine years.

His favorite classes so far have been Shakespeare — where his class performed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — and Social Psychology. “[Psychology] helped me get a deeper insight into how people think, how to talk to people,” Wilkinson said. In his free time, Wilkinson has been learning to code in JavaScript from a Computer Science TA outside of class. 

In spite of his enthusiasm for learning, Wilkinson said going to school in prison has unique difficulties. 

“MECC can make it very difficult to get to class on time. We have to speed through learning,” he said. 

He explained that the Department of Corrections (DOC) doesn’t always call movement, a period when incarcerated individuals are permitted to move locations within the prison. If movement is delayed, students may be forced to arrive late to class. Wilkinson contended that if he continues to miss hours of courses due to the DOC’s orders, PEP will need to implement some form of hybrid learning so that he can catch up on lectures. 

Soloman Evans is considering pursuing a PhD after his release from MECC (Izzy Silver/Student Life).

Solomon Evans

As he serves his time at MECC, ex-military veteran Solomon Evans regards his formerly incarcerated brother as a source of optimism for what his life could look like post-release. “He has me in here to keep him balanced, and I have him out there to keep me hopeful,” he reflected. Evans said his past self “wasn’t prone to making good decisions” and had “trouble dealing with adversity when things [didn’t] go [his] way.”

However, PEP has given Evans a chance to rise to leadership. As an Algebra TA, he spends most of his time in the study hall, wanting to make himself available to fellow students. PEP has kindled his love for math and science. “I’m a STEM student. I think math will be a part of whatever career I fall into when I go home,” Evans said. 

Having just acquired his Associate degree from the program, Evans is now working towards a Bachelor of Arts degree. He looked back fondly on his PEP graduation for his Associate degree, recalling, “The best part of that was watching my mom’s face light up. She was proud of me.”

Though he was “nervous to even say it,” Evans admitted that he’s considering graduate school, even getting his Ph.D. “That’s something I’ve never considered before PEP,” he said. 

Originally, he planned to become an Observatory Technician after release, but taking biology through PEP has caused him to reconsider his plans and think about becoming a Lab Technician instead. Although he considers Bio Psych with Dr. Norton one of his more challenging courses, he mentioned he had “never gone to a class and said ‘I don’t like this.’” 

Sympathizing with Wilkinson’s complaints, Evans agreed that “DOC’s going to be DOC. They have their own prerogatives. We’re not always going to get to class on time.” However, he praised PEP for enabling him to rise above his initial expectations for himself that were shaped by DOC’s messaging. 

“You’ve got DOC telling you [that] you’re never going to amount to anything,” he said. “Then you have WashU staff saying, ‘Look at what you did! You did that yourself.’”


Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.