This year, the 2013 Lipscomb University graduates who have perhaps faced the toughest challenges during their college career won’t even be at the December commencement ceremony. They will be in prison, where they have carried out all of their college-level studies over the past eight years.
Eight inmates at the Tennessee Prison For Women (TPFW), and one inmate at another Tennessee prison who will receive her degree in absentia, will become Lipscomb’s first associate degree earners on Friday, Dec. 13, at 1 p.m., in the prison’s gymnasium, 3881 Stewarts Lane, Nashville.
The women are members of Lipscomb’s LIFE Program (Lipscomb Initiative For Education), which provides courses for college credit at the prison each semester. The university sends faculty out each Wednesday evening to teach liberal arts courses such as art history, judicial process, Christian ethics, community engagement, math, English and physics.
In addition, up to 15 of Lipscomb’s traditional students per class travel to the prison each week to take the courses along with the inmates in the prison. They get the same three hours of credit they would get on campus, but they also get a life-changing experience as they get to know the “inside students” on a very personal level.
“One of the things that tends to happen in our criminal justice system is that the inmates become dehumanized,” said Richard Goode, professor of history at Lipscomb and founder of the LIFE Program. “We never see the inmates, so we develop certain perceptions about them, most of which are false.
“When we all get in a room together, it humanizes the situation,” he said. “The campus students begin to realize we aren’t all that different, and the women at the prison are eager for human contact and interesting conversation. With multiple perspectives, we are all challenged.”
The nine women receiving their degrees began their studies in January 2007 and have taken a class each semester, as well as extracurricular activities along the way such as creating a literary journal and producing a play based on their personal life journeys.
LIFE students at TPFW develop better self-confidence, expanded life experience and good study habits. In fact, several paroled TPFW students have gone on to take additional courses on the Lipscomb campus after they are paroled. Lipscomb’s traditional students are afforded an eye-opening experience to get to know and befriend the inmates, an encounter that many students say has affected their life choices well after completing the class.
“I used to not care! I neither cared about the words that came out of my mouth, nor who I hurt with those words,” LIFE participant Erika Patrick recently wrote. “I didn’t care about my future, my education or the obstacles ahead, at least until I met a community of people who held me accountable for my attitude, actions and behaviors. They showed me that I was not only hurting myself, but also the community around me. I used to not care until I enrolled in Lipscomb University.”
While it will be held in the prison gymnasium, Lipscomb officials plan to make the LIFE commencement on Friday, Dec.13, with just as much pomp and circumstance as the traditional commencement on Saturday, Dec. 14, in Allen Arena. Faculty and graduates will dress in traditional regalia; the graduates will process into the gym; university President L. Randolph Lowry will present the commencement address and a special luncheon and post-ceremony reception will be held in the graduates’ honor.
Guests of the graduates, Lipscomb faculty and administrators, other members of the LIFE Program at the prison and some of the past traditional Lipscomb students who have studied with the women will be in attendance at the ceremony.
The LIFE Program has grown since 2007 from 15 participants to 40 at the Tennessee Prison for Women. It is one of only a handful of programs in the U.S. to offer a college degree to prison inmates. Program coordinators are currently working toward offering a bachelor’s degree option to the students at the Tennessee Prison for Women.
The LIFE Program also holds college classes for credit for formerly homeless men at the Room in the Inn campus and at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, although traditional Lipscomb students do not attend courses at Riverbend. The LIFE program also partnered with the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative this past fall to offer a course for credit at Charles B. Bass Correctional Complex.