Education Justice Project frees incarcerated minds

By Elyssa Kaufman, Staff Writer

For Earl Walker, the limitations of incarceration did not stop him from liberating his mind. His sentence at Danville prison was a chance to further his education through the Education Justice Project.

Through literature and social movement classes, Walker became an accomplished student.

“This program helped change my perspective in the sense that it gave me a different outlook,” Walker said.

While incarcerated, Walker became involved with the Education Justice Project through the College of Education. This program allows University students and faculty members to teach classes at the Danville prison and to provide inmates with a higher education.

“Getting to know the people and see that they were genuine in their cause, it expanded my mind,” Walker said. “The education made me more aware and more willing to engage with different cultures and different mindsets.”

The Education Justice Project

Rebecca Ginsburg is one of the co-founders and directors of the Education Justice Project.

After teaching in a prison during her graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, she found inspiration for this project and started it in 2005 at the Danville prison. Now, the EJP program is run with the College of Education and the help of faculty, students and the community.

“I am truly grateful for the people in the College of Education for the organization leadership,” Ginsburg said.

By law, most states have to provide basic education to people who are incarcerated, but this program offers inmates more. In the prison, the EJP offers credit courses as well as extra-curricular opportunities like tutoring and writing workshops. Ginsburg explained that not only is the program within the Danville prison, but other programs within the community also exist for people on what she described as the “outside.”

Walker explained that the EJP offered access to computers. He said he was aware that this opportunity gave him access that most other individuals in prison do not have.

“The program creates a community that is supportive of each other and accountable for one another,” Ginsburg said. “We can continue to do this work so the inmates still feel pushed or motivated. Because of that they can continue that connection to strive to continue their education programs like EJP.”

“I thought it was really meaningful to teach people who otherwise would not have access to higher education,” Ginsburg said.

The Instructors

Jim Sosnowski, a graduate student in Education, has volunteered for five years with the EJP as a teacher trainer in the English language program. He explained that in the program, incarcerated men are teaching other incarcerated men English as a second language.

“Volunteering in the prison has furthered my education by helping me to think about and question the assumptions about life and education that I bring into the classroom with me and carry with me on a daily basis,” Sosnowski said.

Sosnowski explained that he is frequently asked why the men in prison choose to gain an education through EJP. When speaking with an incarcerated man, he learned the answer to this question.

“He talked about how education made him a better person, and that he has learned that he could be a positive influence to other men in the prison,” Sosnowski said. “And how when he was released, he hoped to be able to help change the world and make it a better place.”

EJP alumni engagement

While out of prison, Walker is able to stay involved with EJP. One of his experiences outside of prison was speaking on a panel, which he said allowed him to add to the conversation.

“Those panels allowed us to sit down and speak about the impact of incarceration,” Walker said. “We were asked different questions, and it was impactful because who better than to ask about incarceration there than an individual that was incarcerated?”

He explained that he feels high school students sometimes fail within the society and education systems and are then pushed into the incarceration system.

Walker said after leaving the prison, he not only had the opportunity of being a student and alumni, but he also had the opportunity to work with the faculty and staff on new projects outside of the prison.

As an alumni of the program, Walker will participate in a expo to bring awareness to higher education in prison and how it can reform someone’s life. Walker said entrepreneurial opportunities came out of his EJP education because he gained experience in networking and engaging with individuals.

Life after prison

Walker now runs a business called Head 2 Toe Fitness, which he has been operating for five years. Not only is Walker an entrepreneur, he is also a psychology major at a local college and continues to be in touch with EJP. He stays connected through alumni meetings, community-based events and an upcoming expo.

“EJP made us feel human; prison makes you feel inhumane with limited social contact,” Walker said.

“You’re in a fishbowl being in prison; you can think something might work but it’s not applicable to the free world,” he said. “To have someone there to bounce ideas off at EJP is a nice touch. It was more than just education; it was life skills.”

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