Women’s College Program brings college courses to incarcerated women

Lora LempertFor Lora Lempert, there’s no such thing as a 9-to-5 workday.

The University of Michigan-Dearborn sociology professor heads to campus early in the morning to teach and conduct research. But her day is far from over when she exits the UM-Dearborn parking lot.

She often heads west on I-94 to the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti. Lempert passes through her routine security checks and eventually welcomes her new crop of students.

But these students aren’t enrolled at UM-Dearborn. They also don’t have the luxuries many UM-Dearborn students take for granted.

That’s because they’re incarcerated for a variety of crimes. But for those who are enrolled in the Women’s College Program, the opportunity to briefly escape from prison life is well worth it.

“Prisons are black holes of intellectualism,” said Lempert, who established the Women’s College Program in 2002. “Prisons are a world within our world, but people don’t think about them. They don’t know what goes on within them.”

Lempert understands what many of these incarcerated women go through. Her research focuses on women in prison and intimate interpersonal violence against women.

And so Lempert frequents Huron Valley and Macomb Correctional Facility.

“It’s a lot of work, I’m not going to deny that, but it’s work about which I feel very passionate,” she said. “Without us, these men and women don’t have other opportunities, so how can you walk away from that?”

When Lempert refers to “us,” she means the UM-Dearborn faculty she’s recruited to teach at Huron Valley. More than 20 faculty members from the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters (CASL) already have taught incarcerated women about everything from social sciences to math to business.

“This is all voluntary,” Lempert said. “We don’t get compensated for this in any way.”

UM-Dearborn supports the program, but the only financial obligations, which include books and supplies, are covered under external donations.

“The thing that strikes me about this particular program is that it epitomizes our metropolitan impact,” CASL Dean Martin Hershock said. “The incarcerated women really get an opportunity to see their true potential.”

Women who aren’t sentenced to life behind bars can apply the credits they’ve earned at Huron Valley toward a UM-Dearborn degree. Several women have taken advantage of the credit transfer, though not all of them at UM-Dearborn. Many enroll at community colleges throughout the state, so Lempert knows the classes have an impact.

“Some women have mentioned how the classes have saved their lives,” Lempert said.

An award for the Women’s College Program’s helped Lempert launch the university’s Inside Out Prison Exchange Program, which brings 15 UM-Dearborn students inside correctional facility to learn as peers with incarcerated men.

And her advice on what to teach in the women’s prison is pretty simple.

“Choose a class that you can teach in your sleep,” she said.

The curriculum seems to work, as more than 360 incarcerated women applied for 120 spots this year. Spots are obviously hard to come by, so Lempert is strict toward those women who don’t take their coursework seriously.

“We know we have an impact,” she said. “They make the women feel better about themselves. They are so proud because they see themselves as college students.”

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