The Tennessee Higher Education Initiative (THEI) was officially founded as a non-profit organization in January 2012 by Julie Doochin, Ed.D. Dr. Doochin, a Nashville native and educator, was inspired in 2007 by a 60 Minutes’ segment on the Bard Prison Initiative, a college program behind bars in New York. As an educator, Dr. Doochin knew firsthand the power of education to change lives and fervently believed that access to quality higher education was the right of all individuals no matter where they may reside. She envisioned creating a program like BPI in Tennessee, a state known for leading the way in education in the US. To achieve this end, Dr. Doochin undertook extensive research in Criminal Justice studies, contacted and interviewed program directors across the nation, became a certified Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program instructor, began volunteer co-teaching courses with Belmont University/American Baptist College at Charles Bass Correctional Complex and attended the National Conference on Higher Education in Prison. Her growing awareness of the immense moral and socio-economic toll of mass incarceration--at the time, the United States was home to only 5% of the world’s population, yet 25% of world’s prison population-- drove her desire to provide incarcerated Tennesseans access to high-quality, degree-granting liberal arts education, as well as a mechanism to help stop the revolving door of recidivism.
While co-instructing inside-out courses at Charles Bass, Dr. Doochin was struck by the fact that the free-world students were earning college credit for the courses while their incarcerated colleagues were not. There were several universities in Nashville teaching courses inside the prison walls, but only one, Lipscomb University, was awarding college credit and AS degrees at the Tennessee Prison for Women. This knowledge and these experiences helped her to build and design a model for providing degree-bearing higher education in prisons in Tennessee. When approached with the idea, then Nashville State President George Van Allen was interested, pointing out that serving this traditionally-neglected sector of the population was the natural domain of a community college. At the same time, Dr. Doochin contacted and brought into the discussion then Director of Education for Tennessee Department of Correction, Sharmila Patel, who shared in their vision. Ms. Patel approached Warden J.R. Miller at Charles Bass Correctional Complex, a minimum to medium security prison for men in Nashville, to host the pilot program. 25 men were accepted as students to NSCC in December 2011, and English Composition I and World Religions, two classes drawn from the TBR General Education Core curriculum, met behind bars for the first time in Spring 2012. In May 2014, THEI, also in partnership with NSCC, expanded to a second correctional facility in Middle Tennessee--Turney Center Industrial Complex in Only, TN. In January 2017, THEI expanded to the western region of the state with a third college program in partnership with Dyersburg State Community College at Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, TN.
During Dr. Doochin’s tenure, THEI prison programs received SACS-COC accreditation, through partner colleges, to grant AS degrees, as well as limited internet access to ensure greater academic equity. THEI served incarcerated students at three prisons in two regions of the state, and awarded college credit to more than 300 students, culminating in the first graduation of 23 men behind bars in Tennessee since the 1980s.