SoPA set to introduce degree program for incarcerated women

Hannah Levitan, News Editor

SoPA introduces new project, in collaboration with Operation Restoration, to offer degrees to incarcerated women. (Hannah Levitan)

Since 2018, Tulane University’s School of Professional Advancement has partnered with nonprofit Operation Restoration to offer classes to individuals at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. In 2023, SoPA will apply to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges to transform their partnership into a full-accredited degree program. 

Established by formerly incarcerated women in 2016, Operation Restoration supports women and girls through education and community enrichment programs. In addition to their education programs, OR offers job advising, mentorship programs, housing assistance and legislative advocacy. 

SoPA enrolled 40 students in collaboration with OR as of 2020

Vanessa Rodriguez, SoPA’s assistant dean for student support and success, said that after offering university courses for four years, Tulane applied to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges to transform the campus into a satellite campus. 

“We are about to submit the paperwork for that into SACS,” Rodriguez said. “It has been approved by the Tulane board and … we continue to offer classes in the meantime.”

SoPA offers humanities classes to all inmates, regardless of sentence length. “We thought it was important that [the program] be open to students with longer sentences as well,” Rodriguez said. “Oftentimes … the folks who have longer sentences become kind of the culture makers within the prison … That’s very powerful. If they … buy into this, other people will buy into this as well.”

Rodriguez said the program has made significant impacts upon individuals’ incarceration experience, especially for those who have children they are responsible for when out of prison. 

The program primarily offers social sciences classes and relies on volunteers. Rodriguez estimated 10 Tulane professors have participated, offering classes such as Incarceration and Government and Women’s Studies. Approximately 35 women are currently taking courses. 

Many of the women are able to transfer prior college credit and continue their degree. Depending on their degree progress, students typically enroll in two courses per semester. Those who are released before graduating are able to continue their studies through SoPA or transfer to another institution. 

“Louisiana has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the entire United States,” Rodriguez said. “[Incarceration] doesn’t only affect the person who is in jail, but it affects everybody who depends on them.”

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “counties and states have authorized prison officials to charge inmates for costs associated with incarceration dubbed ‘pay-to-stay’ programs. These charges range from ‘per-diems’ for their stays to charges for meals, toilet paper, clothing, medical co-pays and dental fees.”

Given inmates’ meager income flow, Rodriguez said the degree program is a way to support inmates in their rehabilitation efforts.

“It’s a unique relationship in that we are partnering with a nonprofit,” Rodriguez said. “I think that will point to our success because Operation Restoration is run by formerly incarcerated women so they have a unique insight into what actually can work inside this whole different culture. 

Rodriguez predicted the project will launch in the fall of 2024. 

Correction: A previous version of this article states SACS had approved SoPA’s application. It has been updated to reflect they still have to apply and plan on doing so this Spring.

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