How to raise the quality of prison education programs

Educators work to ensure that prison education matches what’s offered on campus
By: | October 22, 2019
The University of Utah Prison Education Project instructors teach courses based on the interests of individuals incarcerated at Utah State Prison. This fall, gender studies is being taught in the men’s prison.The University of Utah Prison Education Project instructors teach courses based on the interests of individuals incarcerated at Utah State Prison. This fall, gender studies is being taught in the men’s prison.

Colleges and universities cannot fully commit to inclusion and diversity without offering quality prison education programs, says Ann Jacobs, executive director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

That’s because the massive growth of America’s prison population since the 1970s has disproportionately affected men and women of color, Jacobs says.

“If you’re concerned about inclusion, you have to grapple with where people are and what kind of baggage they’re coming with,” she says. “It naturally takes you to working with people while they’re incarcerated and after they’re incarcerated.”

Jacobs sees individuals in prison as a highly receptive audience. They have sufficient time to do the coursework, and are often reflecting on the paths their lives have taken as well as thinking about the future.


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“When people get a taste of education, it’s demystifying; they may have thought they never could be a college student,” she says. “By starting people inside, you are more likely to prime the pump for people to continue their education out in the community.”

John Jay’s Prison-to-College Pipeline program sends faculty to teach credit-bearing courses in English literature, sociology and other subjects to men incarcerated at Otisville Correctional Facility, about two hours north of the city. John Jay students travel to the prison to participate in monthly “Learning Exchange” classes designed to simulate the college classroom experience.

Students who return to New York City after taking classes at Otisville are encouraged to continue working with the institute’s College Initiative program, which supports students pursuing higher education after criminal justice involvement. The College Initiative serves about 300 students annually; 31 students earned degrees at the end of the last school year.

Jacobs and her team work with a range of the college’s offices to provide counseling, financial aid and help with legal services as individuals transition out of prison.

Even when these students don’t immediately enroll in John Jay or another college, Jacobs’ staff stays in touch as they readjust, and invites them to workshops and other programs.

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Prison education programs shouldn’t be limited to vocational courses, says Michael Dotson, coordinator at California State University, Bakersfield for Project Rebound, which helps formerly incarcerated students enroll in the California State University system.

Along with an academic course of study, Project Rebound also offers these students work-study programs, internships, one-on-one tutoring, and assistance with financial aid applications and housing. Dotson’s program also has its own computer lab and stocks a food pantry.

“When they come onto the campus, they are not former felons or an inmate number,” Dotson says. “They are students and they get treated as such. We see them as students moving forward with a second chance to better their lives.”

A student speaks during class offered by John Jay College of Criminal Justice at Otisville Correctional Facility in New York. (Photo: Amber Gray)

A student speaks during class offered by John Jay College of Criminal Justice at Otisville Correctional Facility in New York. (Photo: Amber Gray)

‘Better than nothing’ is not enough

The Alliance for Higher Education in Prison is a national network of educators sharing ideas for creating prison education programs that are equal in quality to those offered on campuses. Mary Gould, the alliance’s director, hopes more colleges will look at prison programs as part of the academic community, rather than as a public service.

“We’re always fighting against the better-than-nothing model,” she says.

The alliance has released some preliminary findings in its “Equity and Excellence in Practice: A Guide for Higher Education ​in Prison” report. The organization does not aim to standardize the field, but wants to help college educators answer the most challenging questions, such as how to make these programs highly accessible and how to help students reenter mainstream society, Gould says.


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“We need to know how do we not replicate the practices that have excluded marginalized communities from academic campuses,” Gould says. “The intentions and desired outcomes for higher ed in prison should be no different than the way we’re thinking about educational outcomes for students on the outside campus.”

Don’t exclude individuals with long-term sentences

The University of Utah Prison Education Project, launched in 2017, offers courses at Utah State Prison based on preferences of the men and women incarcerated there, says Director Erin Castro, an assistant professor of higher education.

This fall, the prison education program offers a gender studies course in the men’s prison and neuroscience course in a women’s prison. Each of the noncredit-bearing classes includes a teaching and learning lab where tutors (most of whom are graduate students) visit the prison one night per week to help students with homework.

The university also offers ongoing computer literacy courses and a lecture series—for a total of about five nights per week of programming, Castro says.

“There’s a widespread misunderstanding that many people in prison sit around and do nothing,” she says. “Our students are busy: They hold jobs, they’re often enrolled in other classes, they volunteer and tutor their peers.”

Castro’s team also operates The Research Collaborative on Higher Education in Prison in an effort to help other colleges and universities run high-quality prison education programs. One key is not discriminating against certain inmates, Castro adds.

Female inmates at the Utah State Prison are taking a neuroscience course this fall through the University of Utah's prison education program.

Women at the Utah State Prison are taking a neuroscience course this fall through the University of Utah’s prison education program.

For instance, some programs may exclude people with extended or life sentences because it would take too long or be impossible to measure whether education kept them from returning to prison.

“People with life or long-term sentences are some of the strongest advocates you can have,” she says. “They can be phenomenal students. You can’t get quick results on recidivism, but you can measure impact in other ways.”


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A low recidivism rate, of course, can be a sign of success. The rate is “virtually zero” for graduates of Marymount Manhattan College’s program at the maximum-security Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women just north of New York City, says Carly Lynch, the college’s director of multimedia communications.

Students take courses that lead to either an Associate of Arts degree in social science or a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology or politics and human rights. More than 235 women have earned degrees through the program.

The college recently expanded prison education to the Taconic Correctional Facility, a medium-security facility next to Bedford Hills. This creates a degree pathway for women who transition to the lower-security facility, Lynch says.

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer.