UCF has been helping educate Florida’s prisoners since 2017 through a small program that has just received a financial boost to make some of its classes available online to people in prison, thus expanding its impact.

“We are honored and overjoyed to receive funding from the Laughing Gull Foundation, a major supporter of higher education programs in the South,” says Keri Watson, an assistant professor of art history and director of the Florida Prison Education Project.

The $60,000 grant will allow the project to expand from offering in-person undergraduate classes to people in prison to developing online courses for them, as well as establishing a scholarship.

“It’s cheaper to educate people than to incarcerate them,” Watson says. “It also makes our world a better and safer place to live. And for credit-bearing classes, incarcerated students would pay tuition just like non-incarcerated students.”

Previously, Watson had taught an art and art history course at a medium-security men’s prison for the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project.

Three things coincided after arriving at UCF that prompted Watson to start the Florida Prison Education Project here.

At UCF she heard the story of Angel Sanchez, who used his time in prison to turn his life around and later went on to law school.

Then Watson attended a modern languages conference, where during one of the presentations, a panelist showed a pencil self-portrait created by one of her former incarcerated students in Alabama.

When the UCF provost’s office put out a call in Fall 2017 for proposals for the Community Challenge Initiative, Watson said she knew the time was right to bring a prison education program to UCF.

The UCF Community Challenge Initiative is designed to help address significant community challenges using UCF’s strengths with the idea that the improvements could have national or global implications.

Florida has the third-largest state prison system in the U.S.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that nearly 70 percent of people in prison are rearrested within three years of release and more than 75 percent are rearrested within five years.

However, research has shown that people in prison who participate in correctional-education programs are 40 percent less likely to end up behind bars again one day.

“When people are incarcerated, society loses,” Watson says. “Our prisons are full of smart, capable people, many of whom have suffered trauma. We need to offer rehabilitative services that address these issues and prepare system-impacted people for life when they are released.”

The online courses will be developed in conjunction with UCF’s Center for Distributed Learning and will be available to people held in the Central Florida Reception Center in Orlando, a mixed security facility that houses 1,600 men in three units.

Since the project’s inception, 11 classes have been taught to 150 students at the Central Florida Reception Center during the past 18 months. Courses taught include English, art, theatre, physics, American government and philosophy, some of which could be offered online as part of the new grant.

In May 2018, the project received designation as a UCF Community Challenge Initiative, which offers the support of the Office of the Provost, and the project members are working with UCF Connect and the UCF Office of Admissions to transition from offering Continuing Education courses to credit-bearing courses for degree-seeking students.

Members of the Florida Prison Education Project have also trained 24 faculty to teach in prison, received a $50,000 National Endowment for the Arts Grant to host an art exhibition on mass incarceration and higher education in prison starting in August 2020, and collected and donated more than 5,000 books to libraries in Florida’s prisons.

Watson earned her doctorate and master’s in art history from Florida State University and her bachelor’s in interdisciplinary humanities from the University of West Florida.