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Home U Rising The Utah Prison Education Project is a national leader in bringing higher ed to incarcerated individuals. Here’s how it works–and how it is changing lives


The University of Utah’s Prison Education Project is a national leader in creating ethical, prison-university partnerships. In this episode, Andy Eisen, program director, and Sadie Ortiz, an intern with the program and ethnic studies major, explain how the program works and why it matters. You’ll also hear from a current U student who discovered she was capable of college success while formerly incarcerated at the Utah State Correctional Facility.

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Chris Nelson: Welcome to U Rising. I'm Chris Nelson.

If I were to list transformational programs with a community impact, the University of Utah's Prison Education Project would make the cut. The Prison Education Project is a national leader in creating ethical prisoner-university partnerships and you're going to hear today how the program works and why it matters.

My guests are Dr. Andy Eisen, director of the Prison Education Project, and Sadie Ortiz, an intern with the project and ethnic studies major. Welcome to U Rising, Andy and Sadie.

Sadie Ortiz: Thank you.

Chris Nelson: Andy, give us a quick history of the Prison Education Project.

Andy Eisen: Sure. Thank you, Chris. It's great to be here. In 2016, the University of Utah Honors College sponsored a yearlong praxis lab called the Education, Incarceration and Justice Project. The undergraduate course was designed to examine university-affiliated college and prison programs throughout the country. And through that project, the University of Utah's Prison Education Project was born.

Chris Nelson: Excellent. Now, how do you personally get involved in the project?

Andy Eisen: So, this is a bit of a longer answer. If I can give a little bit of background about myself here. I've been involved in higher education in prison for the past decade. I started as a graduate student at the University of Illinois’ Education Justice Project. When I was there, I started to work with individuals who were incarcerated and were being trained to become English as Second Language teachers.

Andy Eisen, director of the Utah Prison Education Project

I'm a historian by training and it was there that I saw very clearly the value of bringing education to empower individuals inside. So I'm not a language teacher. What I was doing was bringing in historical materials on the Mexican revolution, Mexican migration, on the Chicano movement, and then the incarcerated instructors would turn those materials into English lessons. And so there I began to see how in these ESL lessons that the power of higher education to change lives was just really apparent.

And as someone who's invested in racial and economic justice, it was then I decided this is what I wanted to do for a career. Fast forward, I finished my Ph.D., I moved down to Florida and I started a higher education in prison program there with other colleagues at Stetson University. However, despite our students doing really incredible things, publishing works in top-tier journals, they created a public history project that was award-winning, we couldn't get buy-in from the university on the project.

And so when I saw a job posting for this director position for the Utah Prison Education Project and had known the great work that Dr. Erin Castro had done to build this project out, I realized this was the place to help build something really special. And I am just thrilled to be here and working on a degree-bearing program for incarcerated students.

Chris Nelson: So, I always ask the question of folks who are coming to Utah from outside. Were you familiar with Utah before that or had you been here at all on visits?

Andy Eisen: Yeah, so I had visited the Utah Prison Education Project a few years prior—this project has long been a national leader—and was coming here to learn from Erin and the work that she had been doing. And so when I saw that this position was open, realized that this was an opportunity of a lifetime to come out here and work here.

Chris Nelson: Wonderful. Alright, Sadie, so I've got the same question, but we know you grew up in Park City, you chose the University of Utah. So maybe just a little bit about yourself and then how did you get connected with this program?

Sadie Ortiz: Yeah, so I'm first generation, so I was the first one to come to college and still am from my whole family, even though I have younger siblings, but they chose their own thing. But I was originally an accounting major for three years. I was about to graduate, had one semester left and just completely dropped everything and switched my major to ethnic studies. I feel like for me personally it wasn't targeting the people or the community or even my own community that I wanted to help in the ways that I wanted to.

Sadie Ortiz is an intern with the Utah Prison Education Project and ethnic studies major

And I had heard about the Utah Prison Education Project just kind of floating around, something that people were doing and volunteering in and a really great opportunity. And I took a Black feminist course my spring semester, so last year, and they were just talking about being an abolitionist and all the things, and I'd gone to Oakland on a mass incarceration experience where they were also talking about that and the programs that exist in San Quentin. And I was like, what? This is crazy! There has to be something in Utah. And so, I got in contact with Pamela first and then Andy, and just kind of got to learn more about the program, applied for their intern position for the summer, and then . . .

Chris Nelson: I'm glad you did. That's a great background.

Sadie Ortiz: Yeah!

Chris Nelson: So, Andy, let me come back to you. So give us the details. How does the program work? Who can participate? What kind of courses are you offering? All the details.

Andy Eisen: Sure, absolutely. So, we are currently operating at the Utah State Correctional Facility. We have about 80 students in four different units. I don't know if the listeners have been out to the new prison, but it's basically a $1.3 billion sprawling city built on marshlands. And there are about 3,000 people who are incarcerated there.

So between the four different units where we work we, as I mentioned, have about 80 students. We have offered classes in the arts, history, financial literacy, music appreciation and across the spectrum providing a full liberal arts education.

And students become enrolled in our program through a process. There's an application. It mirrors in some ways the application process here at the U. We want to make sure that students are ready to be successful in post-secondary education. And we also ask them things about community service, reasons for wanting to be involved in the program and to make sure that folks are ready to be successful in the project. In addition to those college classes, we do workshops, guest lectures and enrichment activities where we invite more folks from across the compound to participate. And so, this past year we've reached about 800 students.

Chris Nelson: Wow. So, I suspect the answer depends on the individual, but some of this is personal enrichment, intellectual development, but some degree programs as well? I mean is it kind of a mix, based on what the individual person is looking for?

Andy Eisen: Yeah, so we have some credit-bearing classes, we've had credit-bearing classes offered through the University of U in the Honors College. We've also have a partnership with BYU and have some continuing education courses that are offered that are credit bearing. And it really does run the gambit of what folks are wanting. There are some who just want to be involved in a reading group and have no interest in taking classes. And there are others who every time I'm at the prison are asking, when are you getting the degree program running? When is this starting? And so, it is like a college campus where you have people from distinct backgrounds, distinct goals, and . . .

Chris Nelson: Yeah, I'm sure there's challenges. What are some of the challenges you face?

Andy Eisen: How long do we have? There are a lot, sure.

Working in a prison is a real challenge. There are mental health challenges for people who are incarcerated, who are trying to find something . . . ways to better themselves despite the conditions of the prison, despite being incarcerated, despite being surrounded by a couple hundred other people at all times, right?

So, you can imagine on the personal level for incarcerated people coming to a class can sometimes feel like an escape, can sometimes feel like something very different and empowering and amazing. At other times, it's just part of the grind of living inside of a prison. And so, there's those challenges that are inherent in any program of keeping people excited and motivated and with an eye on a goal. For the most part, that's work that they do on their own and it doesn't take a lot of heavy lifting on our end, but there are just challenges from the violence of the institution of the prison.

But more specifically in terms of the work that we do, we have challenges providing students with all the resources that they need to be successful. So students don't have any access to the internet. And as we're developing a degree program, we're working very closely with the prison's education team to ensure that students will be able to use online learning platforms like Canvas as well as having access to digital libraries and online academic journals—the kinds of things that we take for granted here that just don't exist inside.

And so we're really hopeful that we'll be able to provide those services and resources to students. But until then, we depend on volunteers and instructors to print out all the course material needs.

As we develop programming for upper-division coursework, students will need to be able to learn how to conduct their own research and they will need the technological resources to be able to do so. And we're really excited that we were recently able to bring in laptops and a charging card inside the prison. So these are baby steps, they're not connected to the internet, but we're in talks and if we launch . . . WHEN! we launch our degree-bearing program, our students will need those resources.

Chris Nelson: We are so dependent as a university on, I think of Canva, I think of our online learning platform. So Sadie, you're a current student here at the university, but you were able to go to the prison in October and do some work around the eclipse. So a lot of hands-on learning opportunities, but do you mind talking about that experience a little bit?

Sadie Ortiz: Yeah, kind of what Andy was saying, I feel like we take literally everything for granted. And I actually have been able to go every Tuesday into the prison and also help teach constitutional law and financial literacy. And just like Andy was saying, I think access to internet is something that we all are kind of like, oh, it's so easy!

Like, sometimes the students will ask something and I'm just like, I just wish I had my phone or something and just give them an answer right now. So it is something that's really, really challenging and especially just being, I don't know, an iPad baby, I'm like, this is awful. This is really, really challenging.

And for me personally, I guess going to the eclipse, it was my first time on the women's side and just something so simple as being able to look up at the sky and looking at the moon and seeing these women and the comments that they were making, like, ‘oh, it feels so good to finally feel like I'm not in prison all the time’ is just goes back to what Andy was saying. It's something that's taking them out of an institution that is causing so much harm and so much violence to them and allowing them to even just breathe for a little bit.

Chris Nelson: Wow, powerful. Andy, I think this is a question for you, but the program has expanded beyond the U. I was looking at the website and we've got faculty from a lot of other universities. So what does that participation look like and are you looking for more people?

Andy Eisen: Great questions. So yes, we have had faculty over the past year from BYU, UVU, Weber State, Utah State University and Southern Utah University involved in the project. And they've done different kinds of programming and enrichment activities. They've led reading groups, we've had professors teach Ethics Bowl from Weber State and Utah State University. They brought their students in for a competition against UPEP students. Our students won one match and lost the other. So, they held their own for their first time being participants.

We've had Dr. Xun Sun, the director of orchestral activities at Southern Utah University, provide a five-week music appreciation seminar. Every Saturday he would drive from Cedar City up to Salt Lake to give his class and then drive back home.

There's a level of commitment to this work that is really inspiring and keeps, I think, all of the volunteers and our staff dedicated to the work just to see the responses to such great faculty members from across the state being involved in the project.

And yes, we are always looking for additional faculty to be involved. There's more information on our website about ways that faculty can provide guest lectures or workshops or if they have the capacity to do so, semester-length classes.

Chris Nelson: So Andy, a student who wants to get involved that may not be ready to be as vulnerable and actually go out to the prison, is there work for those students as well?

Andy Eisen: Yeah, so we have three basic ways that undergraduate students can get involved in the program. One, as Sadie has already mentioned, is onsite support working as teaching assistants during resource room hours. And we currently have about 20 students involved in the program from three different universities in Utah who do that work. They are providing onsite support, resource room hours and our Ethics Bowl class, French revolution, our art course, constitutional law. And so that's one way is the resource rooms onsite.

Other students we have doing research on campus that helps us to support formerly and currently incarcerated students. Those same students are helping us create a re-entry directory that contains information on life-affirming services like housing, food, id, legal services that are available to formally incarcerated folks across the state.

And another thing that Sadie has done is translated materials into Spanish. So incarcerated people and migrant organizations can have access to materials on carcerality to better understand themselves and their communities and questions of policing and the like. So that's the second way, is research on campus.

And finally, we offer a summer reading program that Sadie was also involved in, a 12-week summer reading group that deals on questions of carcerality so that the folks who are involved in our program aren't just showing up to the prison and trying to be there to help, but also learning about the deeply rooted issues and histories that make it necessary for universities to engage in the most pressing questions of our times.

Chris Nelson: And, of course, we're the University of Utah, we're a research university so I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about research components of the program and what kind of research projects are you pursuing?

Andy Eisen: Right, so Dr. Erin Castro is leading the research collaborative on higher education in prison. Currently they have a project where they're examining the landscape of prison higher education, including the pathways that are made available to incarcerated learners throughout the nation, as well as studying the impact of the return of Pell eligibility for incarcerated learners throughout the country.

Chris Nelson: So, Andy, you recently received a large grant to support your research. Tell us about that.

Andy Eisen: Yeah, so Erin  received a $750,000 planning grant from the Ascendium education group. The funds from this grant will support planning for the launch of a research center on post-secondary education in prisons. The center will serve as a national hub for defining critical evidence gaps and advancing rigorous research to inform the design, evaluation and improvement of post-secondary education programs for incarcerated learners.

Chris Nelson: Administratively within the university, where does this program live?

Andy Eisen: So, our program started in the College of Education and we are currently very happy to be housed in undergraduate studies.

Chris Nelson: So, both for Andy and Sadie. So I know providing college courses and degrees to incarcerated individuals hasn't always been supported, particularly here in Utah. But we talk about universities nationwide as a great societal redeemer. We talk about corrections. So how do you respond to naysayers who may not support this? And I'd be curious to get Sadie's perspective as a student, but also Andy, maybe your perspective first as a faculty member.

Andy Eisen: I think that education is something that belongs to everyone. It is not something that is only or should only be available to people from certain racial backgrounds or socioeconomic classes or individuals who've been on that traditional track or pathway to college education. And so the work that we're doing, the work that other programs across the country are doing, is really living up to the promise of what post-secondary education can be.

We're working with faculty who are deeply invested in education for education's sake, to provide opportunities to folks who otherwise may never have had an opportunity to be at the U or to think of themselves as being capable of being students at an institution like the University of Utah. And that kind of self-esteem and self-worth that comes with education is something that belongs to everyone and it is a social good.

Chris Nelson: Sadie, same question.

Sadie Ortiz: Yeah, I think for me personally, being first generation and not knowing if I was going to go to college or how I was going to get there and then being able to really be here and like Andy was saying, I think everyone always talks about knowledge is power and it really is.

And I feel like no one really has the right to take that from someone and no one really should be able to say, oh, you cannot have access to this education because of a mistake or because of something from your past or all of a sudden you just aren't allowed anymore. I just think that that's something that could easily happen to really anybody. And college has changed my life in so many ways and it's something that has changed the lives of so many people. So, I think, like you were saying, it's something that can just help our society as a whole and neglecting people from that is not really changing our society in any way.

Andy Eisen: If I can just jump in there. We also see that happening on the compound with our students being leaders on the compound, as being individuals who are looked up to, who can be tutors, who do work onsite with folks who may not be quite ready to take college-level classes. And we're developing additional programming that will empower our students to take on that leadership role and then have a trickle-down effect, where the work that we're putting in and faculty coming out and teaching—those lessons can then find ways into other parts of the prison that we don't have access to.

Sadie Ortiz: And even I feel like in a way beyond that, I think for me personally, I have a lot of friends that aren't in college and decided not to take an educational route—not educational, but just going to, I guess, college. And when I talk about being in school, they're just like, oh my gosh, seeing you in college and seeing you be there makes me feel like I could go. Even though at one point they felt like, oh, it's definitely not something I could even consider. I think even beyond just incarcerated people, education, making access to education in general is something that we could all focus on as a society.

Chris Nelson: Wow. Great answers. Respectful of privacy, but any success stories we've got that you want to share, either of you?

Andy Eisen: Sure. One person that comes to mind, and I texted her before the show to make sure I could use her name, is Lia Olive, who is an undergraduate student at the U who is enrolled here, who is an alumnus of our program and is working with our program and helping us create materials for re-entry and helping us do a better job serving students as they come home. And so I look to her and the incredible work that she's doing. She's taking classes in business and is a couple semesters away from graduating and is just exactly the kind of student that any university would be lucky to have.

Chris Nelson: Sadie, you shared the story about the woman you are working with who just simply observed how nice it is to be outside in that experience. And so your role as a student, Andy talked about it's not only benefiting the inmates but also the students. I wanted to press you on that a little bit more and that impact it's had on your trajectory in your life and what you might want to do professionally.

Sadie Ortiz: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I think UPEP has made me realize that this is work that I want to do probably for the rest of my life. Like I said, I originally was going to be an accountant, I had an accounting job, all the things. And so this just definitely made me change my mind, do a whole 360 on the people that I can help and how much change I can do even as a 22-year-old person.

Chris Nelson: Andy, you mentioned the experience of a formerly incarcerated student and we actually have her perspective. We’re pleased to be able to play that clip now.

Lia: Hi listeners. I am one of those success stories that Andy and Sadie was just telling you about. I got involved in the program in the prison because I was part of Salt Lake Community College. I had done other programs prior to that, so I was already kind of primed and ready for something more.

And so when the University of Utah came up to the prison and introduced themselves as a program that was starting with non-credit bearing classes, I thought that that would be kind of exciting for me because then I could take these upper-division classes and not be intimidated by the grading system.

So I took those classes and I ended up being part of the program for two years and did very well in those classes. Right after that, the two years, I was paroled and came home to Salt Lake City, Utah.

And from there I was in contact with Erin Castro, the director of the program in the prison, and she was the one that kind of helped me keep that momentum going from prison. And I was able to apply for financial aid and do all the little steps that it took for me to get into the program from prison into the real world. And so, I'm here at the University of Utah in undergraduate studies. I did bring my credits over from Salt Lake Community College, so I kind of got a head start with my credits. And I am studying pre-business at the David Eccles Business College.

In doing the program in prison, I realized that there was a lot more to me than I thought that there was. Not to say that I felt that I was stupid, but I didn't really have that much confidence in myself. But in doing the program and working with the UPEP staff, they made me more comfortable and they made me open up a little bit more about myself, if that makes any sense.

And I was able to discover that there was a lot more layers to myself than I thought there was. So, there were some classes that I took that I never would've taken myself just because the classes were kind of intimidating, like microbiology 1010 and I was able to take a class called sociology of education and another class that was anatomy and physiology. And in those classes I learned that I did have the capability, I guess you could say, of deeper thought. And I didn't realize that I had that.

And the UPEP staff was—I don't know if it was just that those particular staff members or if it's just the kind of breed that comes out of the University of Utah—but they made it so that I kept on opening and unlocking different doors to myself that I didn't know that were there.

And so when I did parole, I wanted to keep going. I wanted to know what more there was of me to discover. And so I'm at the University of Utah now. I'm taking five classes, which is a little bit more than I would recommend for anybody else to take, but I felt like I was already behind with a lot of things and so I wanted to hurry up and finish my general ed. It’s a lot, but it's exciting.

What I did like also about the staff, the UPEP staff at the prison, is that they didn't treat us any differently than any other student that was here on campus. I'm finding that they graded the same, that I am getting graded now from professors that don't know that I am a formerly incarcerated person and they just treated us the same. And it made it almost like they made me feel more human again.

So, I am a first-gen ed student in my family. There's a lot of support behind me right now with my mom and my siblings because they're excited that we are going to have a first college educated graduate.

And so I don't know if my choices to attend college in prison helped influence my younger siblings, but right now the youngest one in our family, she became part of Pathways BYU while I was in college in prison, which surprised me because she's one of the more shyer ones. And then last week she told me, ‘I'm thinking about coming to the U.’ And so it kind of made me feel like my decision to attend college in prison did influence her because she's now following me to the U, which I'm super excited about.

And so I'm hoping that, because right now I'm raising my sister's four kids, and they are watching me now struggle with my schedule and taking care of them and also taking care of my own child and also making time to study and go to school, and they see that the importance of education coming from me and it has trickled down to them.

And that makes me excited for them because now they are talking about, my two younger niece and nephews, one's a junior and one's a sophomore, and they are talking to me about what they need to do to come to college with me. And so that's really exciting for me to hear from them.

So, I am now working for the University of Utah through UPEP. So, I am the re-entry coordinator for UPEP. And so what that job entails is that I am the person that's going to be the first contact person with individuals that are coming out of prison that are involved in UPEP in the prison. And I will help them basically get re-entered into society and to help them overcome the obstacles that I had to go through to get back into school, which a lot of that stuff has really nothing to do with coming to school.

It has to do with finding housing, finding a job, finding food, clothing, stuff like that. And then from there, helping them get back involved with the University of Utah, helping them get ready with their financial aid and getting them ready for the interview process because there is an interview that they have to go through, an interview process through the University of Utah. They have to talk to the disciplinary board because of their past criminal history. So just getting them ready with that interview because it sounds daunting and it does sound intimidating, but it really isn't. Just getting them prepped and letting them know what to expect when moving forward with the university.

Chris Nelson: Andy and Sadie, thank you for being my guests on U Rising.

And listeners, I want to let you know if you've been impressed by what you've heard, the project has a wish list on its website where you can support their efforts. The site is

That's it for today's episode of U Rising. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is Robert Nelson. I hope you'll tune in next time. I'm Chris Nelson. Thanks for listening.