New Augustana prison education program will host Zoom event Jan. 17 on college behind bars

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The 2019 film, “College Behind Bars” (by Ken Burns and :Lynn Novick) will be shown on Jan. 17 at 6:30 p.m.

In honor of the upcoming Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Augustana College is hosting a panel discussion and movie, “College Behind Bars,” online Monday, Jan. 17.

That is a four-hour film directed by PBS’ Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (first aired in November 2019) and is available on Netflix. The events on Jan. 17th will highlight and explain how college in prison programs are part of the “dream of the beloved community” through the inspiring voices of formerly incarcerated students, according to an event release Thursday.

The featured panelists will include men featured in the PBS documentary, members of the Bard Prison Initiative and the Augustana Prison Education Program. The 20-year-old Bard Prison Initiative is a program of Bard College that provides college education to people in prison.

The academic programs end in associate and bachelor’s degrees from Bard. The New York State college first started making the news when its debate team won against Harvard University in 2015.

The Augustana Prison Education Program, which began this past fall, is modeled after the Bard Prison Initiative and was organized by Dr. Sharon Varallo, professor of communication studies. Ten men attended classes this fall at East Moline Correctional Center, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in communication studies.

Dr. Sharon Varallo, Augustana professor of communication studies, in class at the East Moline Correctional Center. (Photo by Chris Ferman ’23)

The panel discussion is going to be a virtual event live — via Zoom — at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 17th. (To attend, use this link.)

“For taxpayers, it’s about the best value for the money and time invested,” Sharon Varallo, the driving force behind the inaugural Augustana Prison Education Program (APEP), and its executive director, said in a college release. “For every dollar spent on college classes for incarcerated people, five dollars are saved on the cost to the community.”

No Augustana institutional or tuition funds are used to finance the program.

Varallo and other faculty make regular trips to the prison to teach the same classes they offer on campus. One of Augustana’s most popular classes — African-American/Black Literature taught by Dr. Paul Olsen — is one of APEP’s five courses this past fall. The curriculum mirrors Augustana’s liberal arts focus.

APEP is modeled after one of the most rigorous and effective prison education programs in the nation — the Bard Prison Initiative in New York — that captured national attention after it was profiled by filmmaker Ken Burns. The documentary illustrated several success stories, and shattered many stereotypes of people in prison.

Filming for the 2019 PBS documentary, “College Behind Bars.”

“My hope is that people in the community realize that people who are incarcerated are not different,” Varallo said. “They are bright and gifted and have as much to give as anyone, and sometimes they are motivated even more. It’s just untenable that we would throw their lives away.

Sharon Varallo is executive director of the Augustana Prison Education Program and a professor of communication studies.

“At Augustana, we believe in the power of education for people to learn about their options, and be transformed, even if they don’t have the regular channels to get to the main campus of Augustana,” she said.

APEP was launched with a grant from the Austin E. Knowlton Foundation, where Eric Lindberg, the chief investment officer, has been leading an initiative for prison education reform.

Augustana College’s annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., event on Jan. 17 will highlight and explain how college in prison programs are part of the “dream of the beloved community” through the inspiring voices of formerly incarcerated students.

The theme — “Redemption: Carrying on MLK’s Vision of the Beloved Community” — and the day’s programs reflect Dr. King’s call to bring people together, bridge equity gaps and provide hope and opportunities for social change. 

Community and campus programs this month

Jan. 17: The Quad Cities community is invited to hear the Bard Prison Initiative panelists at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom.

Jan. 17: Faculty, staff and students are invited to the panel discussion by the Bard Prison Initiative and the Augustana Prison Education Program at 10:30 a.m. via Zoom. 

January term classes will be held on an abbreviated schedule. Courses will meet for 90 minutes, either from 8:30-10 a.m. or from 2:30-4 p.m.

The documentary, “College Behind Bars” will be shown throughout the day in the You Belong Here Lounge, Gerber Center, fourth floor.

Jan. 19: The National Civil Rights Museum Virtual Tour will be offered at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom. There will be a watch party in the Gävle Rooms in the Gerber Center. The event is open to the Augustana community and alumni.

The National Civil Rights Museum is located at the historic Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. King was assassinated. The museum has a mission to “share the culture and lessons from the American Civil Rights Movement and explore how this significant era continues to shape equality and freedom globally.”

Jan. 17-21: An “I Have a Dream, Too” interactive exhibit will be open daily in the You Belong Here Lounge, Gerber Center, fourth floor. There will be activities throughout the week.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 28, 1963.

On Friday of that week, students are invited to a drop-in event from noon-3 p.m. to learn about Dr. King and his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. He delivered the speech on Aug. 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It was a defining moment in the civil rights movement when Dr. King outlined his vision for equality, justice and freedom. 

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