Inaugural commencement celebrated at Indiana Women’s Prison

August 17, 2023

Photo courtesy Mykal McEldowney/Indy Star

This August, 14 women formerly or currently incarcerated at Indiana Women’s Prison received bachelor’s or associate’s degrees through the Women’s College Partnership (WCP), part of the larger Notre Dame Programs for Education in Prison (NDPEP) at the Center. WCP is a college-in-prison partnership between the University of Notre Dame and Marian University that enables incarcerated women from across the state of Indiana to earn a college degree. Administered and resourced by NDPEP, students take classes from Marian instructors and earn credits toward associate and bachelor degrees from Marian.

The first commencement was postponed for four years because of the Covid-19 pandemic, so all past graduates were invited to participate and have their academic achievements celebrated. President Dan Elsener of Marian University and Commissioner Christina Reagle of the Indiana Department of Correction presided over the ceremony. “This is a distinct privilege for me today,” Elsener told the graduates, “because I admire you.”

Warden LaShelle Brown also spoke at the ceremony. She said she often tells the women that “they may be locked up inside of the facility but their mind is not locked up. So they’re allowed to free their mind and move forth in developing their education.”

Sharon Collins is a graduate who explained that her education has changed her life in ways she couldn’t have imagined before she started it. Released from prison in 2020, she has established a nonprofit called Caring About the True You that assists others in the ways she was assisted during her incarceration. She said her WCP experience increased her self esteem “to levels that I could never imagine.”

The ceremony included a tribute to Lisa Van Morrison, a WCP graduate who was released from prison earlier this year but passed away only weeks before the ceremony took place. Lisa’s parents received her diploma in her honor as the entire chapel stood and applauded her memory. The Marian University Jazz Band provided the music, and Tiffanie Agee, attorney and interim dean of Miles Law School in Birmingham, Alabama, gave the commencement address.

WCP will begin its fifth year of operation later this month, with 17 new students joining the program, bringing total enrollment to 45 students.