Laughing Gull Foundation Awards $195,000 to UNC Asheville’s Prison Education Program

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The UNC Asheville Foundation has been awarded a three-year grant in the amount of $195,000 from the Laughing Gull Foundation to support the UNC Asheville Prison Education Program. The program is offering credit-bearing courses to 15 students at Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution (AMCI) in spring semester 2019.

“It’s exciting to know that a partnership between UNC Asheville and AMCI will provide individuals who have never been in a position to receive a higher education degree with this chance to make their lives better,” said Carlos Hernandez, superintendent of AMCI. “This program runs parallel to our mission of providing the general public with services to ensure we are rehabilitating offenders by providing them with tools and resources in order to give them a chance that, once released, they can be productive citizens.”

The grant brings UNC Asheville’s liberal arts and sciences undergraduate education to the Avery-Mitchell campus, helping students prepare for a seamless transition into any institution of higher education upon their release, and connecting students to resources that will support their success. The cohort model focuses on Liberal Arts Core classes, and the program will be led by Regine Criser, assistant professor of German, and Patrick Bahls, director of UNC Asheville’s honors program and professor of mathematics.


“This program exemplifies UNC Asheville’s mission to increase access to higher education, and offers opportunities for students to continue learning and work closely with expert faculty to build a pathway to degree completion. We are excited to begin the for-credit curriculum at Avery-Mitchell and appreciate the support of the Laughing Gull Foundation and our community partners,” said Criser.

Hernandez is familiar with the curriculum, not just from the collaboration, but also from the perspective of a parent. His son graduated from UNC Asheville in December 2016.

“Being that UNC Asheville is one of the top schools in the state and the fact that the faculty and staff can relate to students of all cultural backgrounds, I believe this program will be a success,” Hernandez said.

Sophia Feaster-Lawrence, extension education training specialist and chair of post-secondary prison education program with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, helped the faculty identify grant funding for the initiative. It’s the second post-secondary education program currently offered in Western North Carolina, with Swannanoa Correctional Center working with Warren Wilson College.

“I’m excited about the new higher education partnership with UNC Asheville, NCDPS and Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution and very grateful for the support from Mr. Kenneth Lassiter, NCDPS Director of Prisons, Ms. Nicole Sullivan, NCDPS Director of Reentry Programs & Services and the Laughing Gull Foundation, this program is about Changing Lives & Impacting Generations,” Feaster-Lawrence said. “The curriculum from UNC Asheville has an entrepreneurship angle, so they will be creative, use their skills and expound upon those skills. They will gain more knowledge, information and opportunities to start their own businesses. It can impact generations of their families.”

The program builds on UNC Asheville’s ongoing community engagement, which has included non-credit courses offered at the institution by Scott Walters, professor of drama, since spring 2018. He also taught at the institution previously a decade earlier through a UNC Chapel Hill grant. Some of the same students who enrolled in Walters’ recent courses on The Hero’s Journey and Human Shadow in Film and Literature, have now enrolled in the grant-funded program.

“It’s not just the content of the class,” Walters explains. “They apply it to their lives in visualizing themselves differently than perhaps they have in the past… They consider their own lives within the hero’s journey structure with their time in prison as the wilderness experience and focus on what they will bring to their community when they come out.”

One of the goals of the initiative is to encourage students to transfer their credits to UNC Asheville or other universities when they are released.

“UNC Asheville’s program gives the individuals – 15 people who never thought they could have an opportunity to be a student at UNC Asheville – an optimistic outlook and keeps them on task,” said Buncombe County Local Reentry Coordinator Brent Bailey, who partners on the program for the next steps when individuals are released. “It would be wonderful to see a lot more of this happening across the state and nation, so kudos to UNC Asheville for taking the initiative.”

For more information about UNC Asheville’s Prison Education Program, contact Criser at [email protected] or 828-232-2438.