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Utah Prison Education Project admits first degree-seeking students

The Utah Prison Education Project, UPEP, at the University of Utah is admitting its first cohort of 15 degree-seeking incarcerated students.

Students in the women’s unit of the Utah State Correctional Facility will pursue a Bachelor of University Studies (BUS) and a certificate in professional and technical writing. Both programs are offered through the College of Humanities. 

The inaugural cohort represents “a bold expression of University of Utah President Taylor Randall’s commitment to unsurpassed societal impact in our state and region,” said Erin Castro, associate dean of Undergraduate Studies.  

In 2016, Castro co-founded the initiative alongside 12 undergraduate honors students. Over the past eight years, UPEP has provided diverse academic and enrichment opportunities for Utahns in prison. This work includes a unique partnership with Brigham Young University and is now led by Andy Eisen, the U’s director of Prison Education. 

Hollis Robbins, dean of the College of Humanities, is confident the partnership between her college, UPEP and other campus units will offer a model for bringing the value of higher education to incarcerated students. 

“The same skills in critical thinking, effective communication, conflict resolution and love of learning that research has shown prepares on-campus humanities students for successful lives and careers are sure to be uniquely valuable for UPEP learners, who are preparing for futures after their incarceration ends,” Robbins said. 

According to Frankie Laanan, dean of the College of Education, it’s never a given that academic research will translate directly to transforming local communities. 

“The university’s dedication to UPEP over the last eight years is a shining example of scholarship with real societal impact,” Laanan said “Due in large part to this foundational work with UPEP, I firmly believe that Utah can become a national leader in post-secondary education in prison.”

Through the University of Utah Reading Clinic, housed in the College of Education, UPEP students will have opportunities to serve as tutors and mentors for other incarcerated students hoping to pursue higher education at Davis Technical College or Salt Lake Community College, Laanan said. 

The prison education program is the culmination of years of collaboration between the U and partner institutions, including Salt Lake Community College, Davis Technical College and Utah State Corrections, said T. Chase Hagood, senior associate vice president of Academic Affairs and dean of Undergraduate Studies.

“This is the first time in our university’s history that we have allowed a currently incarcerated cohort to apply to the U,” Hagood said. “We are committed to preparing students from diverse backgrounds to be leaders and global citizens who strengthen our society and democracy. UPEP’s bachelor of Undergraduate Studies program is vital to helping us meet that goal.”

Next year, Castro and her team will launch the only national center dedicated to prison higher education research and leadership at the University of Utah. To learn more and support the work visit