Associate Professor of Religion Dr. Andy Watts recently published a blog in the Huffington Post Education titled “Entering Prison With a Syllabus” on his experience working with the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative (THEInitiative) and teaching higher education courses in the prison system.
Watts said he wrote the piece because of his recent research and teaching on social activism, criminal justice and mass incarceration. In 2009, Watts started teaching a course in prison, thanks to colleague Dr. Andi Stepnick’s involvement with the Inside-Out education program, and was able to take 10 Belmont students inside the Charles Bass Correctional Complex annex.
Through Inside-Out, Watts met Dr. Julie Doochin who championed the cause to bring for-credit higher education to prisons among Nashville. Three years ago, Doochin launched THEInitiative to provide these opportunities inside the walls of Bass Complex and Hickman County’s Turney Center Industrial Complex. Nashville State Community College provides the curriculum and college credits while THEInitiative funds and administers the program.
Watts began teaching with the organization in the spring of 2014 and is continuing on to teach a philosophical ethics course this fall. With three cohorts of 25 men serving sentences of varying lengths enrolled in the program, Watts said he continues to be impressed with his students. “These men are some of the most dedicated and engaged students I have had. The education they are receiving is a form of resistance to a cluster of powers that have and control not only their lives, but larger social attitudes and practices as well. Research shows that education affects recidivism rates, chips away at the cradle to prison pipeline, restores dignity to inmates and their families and leads to positive reforms in mass incarceration,” Watts said.
In November, Belmont will host the 2016 National Conference on Higher Education in Prison to bring together researchers, educators, prison administrators, social justice advocates and nonprofit directors for the purpose of transforming a culture of mass incarceration.