During a grueling 120-mile bicycle race, Marshall DeRosa, professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University, rode past several Florida prisons. It was not the first time a cycling route had taken him that way. However, on that particular afternoon, seeing the prisons sparked an idea.
While teaching at a West Virginia liberal arts college in the mid-1980s, DeRosa had found success teaching West Virginian prison inmates, as the state allowed inmates to take courses for college credit. Surely, thought DeRosa, something similar could work in Florida.
DeRosa had previously partnered with the Charles Koch Foundation for various academic grants, so he decided to call the Foundation to discuss his idea about starting a civics course in a privately operated prison in Florida.
After getting the Foundation and GEO Group Inc. (which operates the prison) on board, DeRosa garnered the approvals necessary to start a state-certified pilot program called the Inmate Civics Education Enhancement Project (ICEEP). It launched in 2015 at the GEO prison facility in South Bay, Florida.
“The class was supposed to be capped at 15 to 20 students, but we ended up with 38,” says DeRosa. There was so much interest in the course that inmates who were not able to get into the pilot class were already requesting a class the following year.
Inmates read and discussed a book called The Five Thousand Year Leap: 28 Great Ideas That Changed the World. DeRosa, who facilitates the class with a counselor, stressed that students should learn about civics in terms of personal responsibility and values.
“We go back to the founding principles and talk about how successful liberty has been [at] advancing prosperity and progress.”
Many of his students expressed astonishment. “They had never heard this before,” he says.
Being incarcerated is a transitional and a transformative period in an inmate’s life. It’s an opportunity to make that a positive transformation rather than a negative one.
DeRosa has long been interested in criminal justice reform, especially reducing recidivism among returning citizens. One of his goals with ICEEP is to change the culture within the prison and prepare inmates for their return into society.
Throughout the first course, DeRosa witnessed inmates accepting responsibility for their actions. He also repeatedly heard statements like, “I didn’t know I had value. I didn’t know that I was somebody and had responsibilities that I should have adhered to.”
Many of the students started writing letters to family and friends. They shared these newly learned principles and values in an effort to break the cycle of incarceration in their communities.
The pilot course resonated so deeply with inmates that they pleaded with DeRosa to teach more. DeRosa applied for a grant and will launch two courses in 2016. This time, second-year students will have a chance to mentor first-year students.
Changing the culture within the prison system and reducing recidivism will be difficult, but DeRosa believes it is possible. “These guys need to have hope rather than being thrown back out on the street to the same situation they lived in previously.”
DeRosa shared about a time when he had to cancel class because of a security issue. When he came back the next week, the class was filled and the students greeted him with a standing ovation.
“They’re genuinely thankful and can’t wait for the next week, because physically they’re incarcerated, but we’re liberating their minds.”
The Charles Koch Foundation requests proposals from scholars like DeRosawho are already working to understand the challenges facing our criminal justice system, like recidivism, and work towards solutions.