NASHVILLE, Tenn. – When Lipscomb University professor Richard Goode first had the idea of offering basic college classes to prisoners, he had no idea how popular the program would become. It's not just the inmates who love it, but also professors and traditional Lipscomb students who vie for opportunities to teach and attend classes inside the Tennessee Prison for Women.
Goode's original goal was to offer six courses over two years for 18 credit hours. He met that goal in 2009, but the women who attended classes faithfully each week — often asking for additional reading and homework — did not want to stop. So the university created a special associates degree just for them.
On Friday, nine women received that degree after seven years of hard work. They were surrounded by robed faculty and fellow students from the outside who came to support them in their achievement. Many fellow inmates in blue jeans and blue scrub-style shirts were also in attendance as the women processed up the aisle of the prison gymnasium and took their places in front of a stage decorated with white poinsettias and a purple-and-gold Lipscomb backdrop.
Several of the inmates in the audience were visibly moved by the scene. They passed around tissues and dabbed their eyes as the graduates crossed the stage to receive their diplomas.
Graduate Barbi Brown spoke for the students, saying, "Everybody has a moment or two in their lives when they feel fulfillment, like they've come full circle. This is one of those."
Brown said Lipscomb gave them a second chance at life — "life as we could have lived it outside of these walls."
Unlike many prison education courses, the Lipscomb program offers its regular undergraduate classes at the prison one day each week. Professors trek out to the prison for the classes, as do 20 to 25 traditional students.
Laney Overton is a freshman who just completed a class at the prison called Influencing Change for Civic Engagement. While the political science major was excited to take the class at the prison, she also was nervous.
"The first day we walked in we were freaked out," she said. "We were wondering, 'Are they all going to have tattoos and want to steal my books?'" Instead the inmates gave them candy and hugs.
And they were serious students. The graduates have a collective GPA of 3.7.
"They definitely always had the highest grades in the class," said Erin Channell, a senior majoring in art who has taken two classes at the prison. "They were so interested in learning. It was the highlight of their week — the same for me too, actually."
Goode said some traditional Lipscomb students have changed their majors and their career plans after taking a class in the prison.
"A whole different world opened up for them and they've gone in a different direction."
And faculty members enjoy teaching in the prison, Goode said.
Christin Shatzer, Lipscomb's director of service learning who has taught two classes in the prison, said it has been the highlight of her career in higher education.
Currently three groups of students take Lipscomb classes for credit at the prison. The class that graduated on Friday started in 2007. A second class started in 2009 and a third started in 2011.
Goode said there was no 2013 class, partly because they have run out of room at the prison. All three classes run simultaneously on Wednesday nights and they use all the available space.
Although the first group is completing an associate degree, Goode said they will be able to continue their studies. The university has agreed to let them pursue bachelor degrees. Under the current structure that will take them another seven years, or 14 years total. Some of the women could be out before then, but several are serving life sentences.
One of those is Erika East. She said the classes have given her renewed hope, a change of attitude and the ability to look beyond herself.
Although she faces decades more in prison, East said she still feels like she can use her education to better society by mentoring other women in the prison who are getting out.
She said the faculty and students of the Christian university have shown her compassion and grace.
"They've shown me that not everyone's against me, that people do believe in me and want to help. And the grace they've shown to me, I want to show to other people," she said.