Bringing Prison to the Classroom — and the Classroom to Prison

Regis affiliate instructor Jim Bullington brings his experience educating those in prison to the classroom to help Regis students understand criminal justice inside and out

In 20 years of educating men and women in prison, Regis affiliate faculty member Jim Bullington estimates that he’s written well over 20,000 letters, helping students and their families navigate college behind bars. He’s crisscrossed the state, visiting nearly every prison in Colorado and educating students in some of the state’s most well-known prisons, from the Sterling Correctional Facility to the Colorado State Penitentiary to Denver Women’s Correctional Facility.

“Nothing compares to it,” he said. “I remember one day I was driving back from Denver Women’s, and I was like, ‘I can't believe I get paid to do this.’ I met amazing people in there.”

Bullington has coordinated prison education programs for most of his career, first in collaboration with Naropa University in Boulder and now with Adams State University in Alamosa. His experiences — both inside and outside of prisons — often make their way into his Regis classroom. Bullington, a 1993 Regis sociology graduate, teaches criminal justice courses on topics including the death penalty and juvenile delinquency.

For Bullington, educating those in prison — he strenuously opposes calling them prisoners — is a rewarding, albeit challenging, endeavor.

It is an undertaking that requires navigating the ebbs and flows of bureaucracy and policy changes. In 1994, amid a groundswell of “get tough on crime” sentiment, Congress defunded programs that allowed people behind bars access to federal Pell Grants to help pay for their education. That forced prison educators to get creative to keep their programs going. “Specter” funds, named after the late Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, an advocate of prison education, provided an alternative funding source. With Regis Associate Prof. Gil Gardner, Bullington and colleagues used these funds to help build what became the largest in-person program taught indoors in Colorado with Adams State.

“It's transformative for everyone involved,” Bullington said. “It is the best teaching experience I've ever had in my life.”


Then, in 2011, Congress defunded the Specter program. Two years later, Bullington and his colleagues at Adams State had to stop the in-person program, turning their attention to the university’s prison correspondence program, which continues today as one of the most robust programs of its kind in the United States.

Bullington said prison education is transformative because it gives people in prison their humanity back.

“I've seen total transformation of people inside a prison, people who thought they could never do anything like this,” he said. “They're writing unbelievable prose, and they're excelling, and they're debating. It's crazy, and you know, it's changed me. I think it changes anyone that goes into it.”

At Regis, his experiences have translated into unique opportunities for students. For years, he took Regis students to the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City, where they put their hands on the gurney used during executions. Colorado abolished the death penalty in March 2020 — a milestone Bullington long advocated for. In class, he challenged students to think deeply about the issue from the victim’s and the perpetrator’s perspective. When the Adams State in-person program was operating, Regis students tutored students incarcerated there. Today, his courses feature the first-hand perspectives of people who have experienced prison, a tradition he started after teaching his first juvenile delinquency course at Regis. Often, they will call in to or visit his classes.

“I have connections, so I started reaching out to family members and friends of people in prison and people in prison,” he said. “And we would do [calls] live from prison. People who were put in as juveniles would call in to my classes.” These first-hand experiences continue in his classes today.

Now, Bullington and his colleagues are turning their attention to another policy change. In December 2020, Congress announced it would reinstate Pell funding for students in prison by 2023. At Regis and elsewhere, Bullington’s goal remains the same.