Sarah Brayne enjoyed teaching in several prisons while finishing her Ph.D. at Princeton so much that after taking a job as an assistant professor of sociology at UT Austin, she planned to join the university’s prison education system and continue volunteering her time. Except, as she quickly learned, UT had no such system. If she wanted to continue to work in prison education, she’d have to organize it herself.
Five years later, that’s exactly what Brayne, her project co-founders Lindsay Bing and Armando Tellez, and program coordinator Max Lubell have done. Their program, the Texas Prison Education Initiative, or TPEI, offers college-credit courses and college prep classes to incarcerated students at two facilities in the greater Austin area. The courses, which span subjects from physics to philosophy, are taught by volunteer instructors and offered at no cost to students. Since it began in 2018, the program has served some 230 students in over 40 classes. But, Brayne and Lubell say, there’s still far more demand than they can meet.
“We have the students complete a placement exam before they sign up for courses, and every semester the prison says, ‘oh, expect about 20 or 30 people to show up,’” says Brayne. “This latest time, we had 170 students at the exam. So, there’s a very big need.”
Big as that need is, TPEI’s determination to fill it may well be bigger, and it seems infectious. Brayne and Lubell share stories about instructors who cheerfully drive an hour each way to teach, knowing that they may well show up to the prison during a lockdown and have to turn around; about teams of undergraduates who help grade entrance exams in their free time; and about graduate students who volunteer to teach classes on top of their already heavy responsibilities.
What fuels that cheerful doggedness above all else, say the TPEI organizers, is the students’ overwhelming desire to learn and participate.
“They’re always asking for more readings, more work,” Brayne says. “They’re always sad when they realize, ‘Oh no, all the classes are offered at the same time, I can’t take more than one.’ There is this hunger in there, this desire to learn, and it’s just extremely, extremely rewarding.”
Working with incarcerated students brings its own, unique challenges — most of TPEI’s students don’t have access to computers, for example — but it also adds a level of meaning to the program’s mission. TPEI isn’t just offering college credit; it’s also cultivating students’ identity as students in an effort to counter the stigmatized identities those students otherwise hold in the criminal legal system.
“One thing for me as a mother that has been really meaningful is working with our students in the women’s facility who are mothers,” Brayne says. “Of course, you can’t be raising your child in your home if you’re incarcerated, so they feel that they are failing as mothers. But it’s been very meaningful for them to be able to feel pride in the work that they’re doing in these classes, in their investment in the future. They say things like, ‘Now I can help my kids with their homework,’ or ‘I was able to send them an essay I wrote.’ That’s helping them create this destigmatized identity. It’s something to be proud of.”
Brayne also says there’s something particularly special about providing their incarcerated students with a liberal arts education. While many facilities may offer vocational programs, TPEI’s focus on the liberal arts sets it apart — and offers students opportunities to better understand themselves and their world.
“The liberal arts are uniquely positioned to provide this intellectual orientation where you can create community and cultivate skills around critical thinking, around engaging diverse bodies of literature, and around being able to see your everyday world through new eyes,” Brayne says. “It can help individuals make sense of their own histories and biographies within the context of broader society in a way that other programs cannot.”
As part of its efforts to expand educational access even further, and bolstered with a new grant from the Mellon Foundation in partnership with LLILAS, TPEI will begin offering Spanish language instruction this fall. Brayne and Lubell are also looking at other possibilities in TPEI’s near future, from partnering with other UT System campuses across the state to expanding into a degree-granting program. Exactly what form that future takes is largely dependent on funding.
Since it began, the program has been supported almost entirely by individual donations, ranging anywhere from $5 to $5,000. TPEI’s website lays out exactly where those donations go, and because the program’s organizers and instructors work on a volunteer basis, there’s no additional overhead. It costs $50 to supply a student with basic school supplies, $125 to pay for one student’s course fees for a semester, and $3,500 to cover all fees and materials for a class of 20. That clarity makes the program rewarding for donors, Brayne says, but she also makes a case for understanding TPEI as more than a charity.
“Everyone who’s going to read this article has had access to a college education, and for me, that completely transformed my life,” she says. “And that is systematically denied to a huge swathe of individuals in this state, both because they’re currently incarcerated but also before that. Our students are overwhelmingly Black and brown, and they overwhelmingly come from poor communities. For many of them, this is the first time that they have had access to a high-quality college education. So, I don’t really view this as a charity. It’s just making sure that people who didn’t have what we had get a chance now.”
And for anyone who may not be able to financially support the program but want to be involved, Lubell says there are other ways to help TPEI accomplish its work.
“We are always accepting new volunteers,” he says. “Our information is online, we have an email address, and I love getting emails from people and departments we have never interacted with saying, ‘I think it would be really cool if we could teach a course on xyz.’ That is one of the great pleasures of this job.”
Volunteers don’t have to be able to teach or be qualified to work directly with students. Whether it’s grading papers, helping to prepare materials about re-entry, or assisting students in getting their transcripts, there’s work for anyone willing to help. Just be aware when signing up: there’s a good chance you’ll stay with TPEI for the long haul.
“Almost everybody ends up being a repeat volunteer,” Brayne says. “People teach here and then they just never stop.”