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Coe College receives grant to support student, community education about criminal justice system


Coe College has received a $15,350 grant from the Associated Colleges of the Midwest to support the creation of a new Prison Learning Initiative at Coe. According to a news release, the initiative will expand existing efforts on campus to engage in community-based research and teaching related to the criminal legal system.

Coe faculty and students will support incarcerated people and returning citizens through community-based research projects, service learning and volunteer opportunities, the release said. The initiative also provides the necessary infrastructure at Coe to begin partnering with the Iowa Consortium for Higher Education in Prison.

The release said the Prison Learning Initiative will extend the reach of the college’s growing social and criminal justice program. The initiative will support Coe’s participation in a program where its students and incarcerated students exchange letters through Exchange for Change, a Florida-based nonprofit. Students at Coe and in Florida prisons will take courses with common readings and exchange letters about the course material.

“I thought Exchange for Change was an amazing experience and would definitely recommend it to other Coe students,” said Coe junior Sarah Hyatt, who participated in the initial letter exchange opportunity last year. “I found it enriching to discuss books with people who had sometimes been through similar experiences or situations. I wouldn’t have been able to hear from these perspectives by only discussing the books in class.”

“This generation gets criticized for being online all the time but our students are out in the community, passionate about how they can contribute,” said Gina Hausknecht, the John William King professor of literature and creative writing at Coe. Hausknecht is one of the faculty members leading the Prison Learning Initiative. “They’re volunteering at RISE [Cedar Rapids’ reentry organization], interning with the 6th Judicial District, going on to vibrant careers in law, law enforcement, social services. It’s enormously helpful to have resources and coordination to support their community engagement.”

The Prison Learning Initiative will sponsor multiple events available to the public this year, including a book drive for Midwest Books to Prisoners and an ArtLinks event in partnership with Justice Arts Coalition. Coe will also host the annual Iowa Human Rights Research Conference in April.

A Reentry Simulation designed to allow participants to gain an understanding of the obstacles incarcerated individuals face upon release from jail or prison will be held on Coe’s campus on April 12 from 6 to 8 p.m.

More information about the initiative and upcoming events is available at the Prison Learning Initiative website or by contacting Beth Valenta at bvalenta@coe.edu.

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