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Grinnell program a lifesaver, former prisoner says

Literacy program establishes skills, confidence

When Mike Cosby went to state prison for the second time, he wasn’t necessarily looking for a moment that would turn his life around.

However, an essay he submitted as part of his application to the Grinnell College Liberal Arts in Prisons Program at the Newton Correctional Facility turned out to be the start of a way to better way of looking at himself and the world — and a better way of life.

“I only put in the essay because that was 45 minutes to be out of my cell,” Cosby said. “Somehow, my essay was one of the 14 picked, and we were the pilot group for a new program. Little did I know this would be the start of my armor coming off — and I went from being ‘I hope no one talks to me’ to being kind of outgoing and a halfway decent public speaker.”

Cosby says Grinnell’s LAPP program gave him skills, helped form his identity and change his thinking in a way that allowed him to continue to develop after he was released from prison on July 23, 2012. Now a union employee and a foreman at Proctor & Gamble, Cosby said he’s called upon to speak regularly on behalf of a program that teaches self-discipline and communication skills through writing and taking classes in a Newton Correctional Facility library.

“It wasn’t a big-budget prison education program,” Cosby said. “All there was were books, and pens and notebooks, and once the instructor found out the pens were like a commodity for inmates, that was the end of those, and we learned to type on computer keyboards.”

Cosby says there were 14 people in the “pilot” version of the program in 2009. George Drake, a professor emeritus at Grinnell College, had a great deal to do with the start of the program, and tried to fire up the first group.

“He told us that since we were a pilot program, if it didn’t go well, that would be it, and the guys after us wouldn’t have it available to them,” Cosby said. “But 11 of us finished the program, and it kept going through the winter.”

The Liberal Arts in Prison Program provides liberal arts education to incarcerated men and women in Iowa’s prisons and youth and its First Year of College program is for men who undergo a selective admissions process at the Newton Correctional Facility. Between 50 and 70 on-campus students volunteer each semester but accredited courses are taught by Grinnell faculty. There are typically three accredited classes each semester, so inmates receive regular Grinnell credits for passed courses taken while in prison.

Aside from staff salaries, LAPP is funded entirely by grants and private donations to the college.

A 2012 survey of the first 140 men to complete the program showed nearly all participants said the program transformed how they thought about liberal arts education, and half of them were currently working or volunteering in a project that related to their experience in the program.

To date, none of the prisoners who have completed the program have returned to prison.

While the program began as a student organization in about 2003 before later becoming a credit-class program in 2009, it shifted into a more semester course-based arrangement called the First Year of College program in 2011, where inmates are admitted into groups and all take the same Grinnell courses at the same time.

Inmates typically remain in the program for either the duration of their time at the prison or when they hit the maximum of 60 Grinnell credits that can be earned. Ceremonies have been held for “graduates” who earn 60 credits, including one held in January when families were invited.

Emily Guenther, a 2007 Grinnell graduate, has been the sole director in the program’s history, and its lone employee, as students volunteer and faculty instructors of courses are employees of academic programs. The program is funded entirely by donations, though the course instructors are regularly paid Grinnell faculty. The program finally was granted its own operating budget in the spring of this year.

“The January ceremony was an incredibly moving event,” Guenther. “One of the reasons many men try to make progress in their lives is to make their families proud. One prisoner’s mother told me learned about the harmful effect of drugs in an especially effective way because the information was part of a neuroscience course.”

Cosby said it wasn’t easy realizing his thinking was broken, but that’s the type of epiphany he had as a result of the LAPP program. He realized his own best thinking had got him to prison, and while the motley crüe of inmates who wouldn’t mix based on their backgrounds, the camaraderie of the student-inmates has been a big part of the LAPP’s success.

“It was tedious, hard work,” Cosby said. “But that was the time when us inmates became more like a family.”

Cosby said when he first showed up at Kirkwood Community College in 2012, his transcript from Grinnell probably seemed like something not typically in the possession of a recently released prison inmate. He owed money to the college, so he wasn’t able to begin taking classes toward a degree at Kirkwood as early as he hoped, but his Grinnell work done while at Newton Correctional gave him a huge head start in college.

Several alumni of the program, including Cosby, make regular appearances at Grinnell at alumni events and in many other places, talking about the vision and strength of the process. Cosby, who now has custody of his two children, also is active in his community as a union member, an NAACP member, and, more recently, as a part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Cosby comes back to the college regularly to speak — especially in June when Grinnell class reunions are held, and alumni hear presentations about campus programs such as LAPP.

“The reunion events that take place each year are really special,” Guenther said. “It really highlights how much the program is a part of the college, and shows global ownership. It’s a really great event.”

Cosby said he’d like to get into robotic welding. He also said he’d like other men to have the transformation he had at the Newton Correctional Facility.

“I learned to think my decisions through, and see how they’ll play out,” Cosby said. “”Before then, I had never really thought of myself as just a citizen, with an identity on the outs. I was always a black man, or an inmate, or an ex-con. was the start of me becoming just a person.”

Contact Jason W. Brooks at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or

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