When I started covering prison education last year, I sent out a lot of messages asking people what kinds of educational programs were offered at their prisons.
It took Jennifer Graves, who is incarcerated at the Florida Women’s Reception Center in Ocala, Fla., a while to get back to me.
“I had NO idea what opportunities we have,” she wrote. “After a little research, I found that we have none. Nothing academic is offered here, which is pretty sad because the University of Florida is about 30 minutes away.”
Graves’ response is not surprising.
While I receive a lot of letters from people in college-in-prison programs, I get just as many, if not more, from people who want to earn a degree but don’t have the opportunity.
My research suggests that this is a national problem, and one that is largely unrecognized.
In most states, it turns out, the majority of prisons do not have higher education programs, especially ones that lead to college degrees.
Incarcerated people in less than a third of state and federal prisons have access to postsecondary education, according to a 2021 survey. And for some populations, academic options are even rarer.
Some states explicitly ban people with long sentences from participating in higher education or don’t offer any degree programs, while others prioritize enrollment based on time to release.
For example, in Florida, which incarcerates 80,000 people, only six out of the 143 correctional facilities in the state offer incarcerated students the opportunity to earn associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.
If those six programs enroll 50 students each (which would likely be on the high side), only 300 prisoners are attending college in the third-largest prison system in the United States.
There are some exceptions.
Since 2014, California has allowed community colleges to use state funding to enroll incarcerated students. As a result, California, which has the second-largest state prison system (behind Texas) with 97,000 prisoners, is one of the few states offering classes in nearly every prison.
Face-to-face college programs leading to an associate’s degree are available at 33 prisons, and people at all 34 facilities can enroll in community college correspondence courses. Six California prisons currently offer in-person bachelor’s programs.
Nationwide, there were 374 prison education programs operating in 522 facilities in 2019-2020, according to data collected by the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison.
Those numbers include programs that offer certificates, associate’s degrees, and bachelor’s degrees, as well as those that offer college classes but not credentials, and require a high school diploma or equivalent for admission.
Most of those programs are offered at the 1,566 state prisons and 100 federal prisons in the United States. People in the 5,000 some local jails, juvenile facilities, immigration detention facilities, military prisons, and other facilities are even less likely to have access to higher education.
While the actual number of prison education programs is likely higher due to the expansion of Pell Grants, and the fact the data is self-reported, those numbers indicate that the majority of people in prison do not have access to postsecondary education.
All of those states now have at least one Second Chance Pell site with the latest expansion of the program in April, but those programs won’t start until fall 2022 at the earliest and not all will lead to two- or four-year degrees.
“If the government and its citizens really want to ‘rehabilitate’ prisoners, then education and job training should be a top priority,” wrote Shawn Bell, who is serving a life sentence at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“If people don’t have something positive…like education, they find other, more negative ways to fill their time in prison.”
Even within facilities that have postsecondary programs, some categories of prisoners, including lifers like Bell, are often excluded from higher education.
Half of the states impose restrictions on participation in education based on the length of an individual’s sentence, while 11 states have restrictions related to conviction, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Many states also prioritize enrollment based on release date.
Kamau Bentley, who is serving a life sentence in Wisconsin, has tried repeatedly to enroll in higher education programs.
In the early 2000s, he tried to sign up for a college program, but was ineligible for state financial aid because he hadn’t registered for the Selective Service. He gave up on his education.
Almost 20 years later, Bentley heard about Pell Grant reinstatement and decided to apply to another college program. Although the Selective Service requirement had been waived, he encountered another obstacle.
“It was determined that I had too much time on my sentence to be enrolled at that time,” he said.
“I was once again denied, and once again defeated. As of this writing, I am still trying to figure out a way to gain my degree, but in all honesty, every year I go without getting it done, the more unlikely it will be for me to do it.”
Although people with long sentences account for a relatively small number of state prison admissions, their numbers add up over time, according to a recent study from the Council on Criminal Justice.
At the end of 2019, 57 percent of people in prison had been sentenced to 10 years or more. More than 200,000 people in the United States are serving life sentences.
Mary Ann Webb, who has been incarcerated at Anson Correctional in Polkton, N.C., for 18 years, said that the criteria to take college courses at her facility is to have a release date within 10 years.
“Since I have life without parole, it’s impossible for me to grow mentally beyond trade classes,” she wrote. “The reason I’m offered trade classes is so I can keep the prison clean and running.”
Prison without opportunities for rehabilitation is “a life of stagnation,” she wrote. “I feel as if I have no purpose because I’m considered a waste of time and money to educate.”
When Mass Incarceration and Student Debt Intersect
In a related issue, a recent report from the Student Borrower Protection Center and the National Consumer Law Center examined the intersection of mass incarceration and the student debt crisis.
“A little considered, but still ruinous collateral consequence of detention or imprisonment is an incarcerated borrower’s spiral into delinquency and default on their federal student loans,” the authors wrote.
While the Education Department does not track incarcerated borrowers, experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of individuals have entered prison already carrying student loan debt, the report says.
Incarcerated borrowers face challenges making monthly payments, communicating with loan servicers, and finding out timely information about debt relief options that might benefit them.
As Ryan Moser and I have previously reported, student loan default is one of the major barriers currently preventing people in prison from accessing Pell Grants.
In April, the Education Department announced a “fresh start” that will bring all defaulted loans, including those belonging to incarcerated borrowers, into good standing.
But as of late July, the department has yet to share any details of the new program, including when it will go into effect and how they plan to communicate changes to people in prison.
The new report looks at the collateral consequences of student loan default and delinquency on incarcerated borrowers beyond Pell eligibility, including its impact on reentry.
“Incarceration-related student debt not only hurts the borrower’s credit, making it even more difficult to secure housing, jobs and transportation after release, it also increases their debt, ” the authors wrote.
“[It] puts them at risk of wage garnishment and benefit offset upon release–right at the moment when they may be most financially insecure.”
An incarcerated student highlighted in the report said that they were never told they could apply for student debt relief programs during their 10-plus year sentence.
I watched the interest get capitalized and fees accrue while I remained helpless. [I]t is an incredible burden to be faced with as soon as you step out of a long-term incarceration.
The report outlines several recommendations that would improve student loan outcomes for incarcerated borrowers, including canceling student loans for borrowers serving sentences of more than five years and publishing clear information about how current servicing practices and policies affect incarcerated borrowers.
The report argues that the unique needs of incarcerated borrowers should be considered during the Biden administration’s current overhaul of the student loan system.
“Providing targeted support to incarcerated borrowers will ensure that these important initiatives have a real chance at success and advancing racial justice goals,” the authors wrote.
“Failing to do so could otherwise undermine these initiatives.”
Last month, the Education Department released the draft regulations for restoring Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students by July 2023. It comes almost three decades after Congress eliminated federal financial aid for people in prison with the 1994 Crime Bill.
The proposals include:
- State departments of corrections, the federal Bureau of Prisons, and local agencies would oversee and approve prison education programs.
- Qualifying prison education programs wouldn’t have to lead to a license or certificate, but if they do, the programs would need to be designed to meet the requirements for those in the state where the correctional facility is located (or where most individuals will reside after release, for a federal prison).
- Establishing reporting requirements to allow the Education Department to collect data on prison education programs.
The call for more data collection is worth noting.
A recent report notes that “one of the biggest challenges in understanding the current landscape of postsecondary education in prison is the lack of comprehensive data at the national level.”
Charlotte West, a John Jay Justice Reporting fellow, is a national reporter with Open Campus. This article combines two essays originally published in College Inside, a biweekly newsletter about the future of post-secondary education in prisons, and is reproduced with permission. Sign up for the College Inside newsletter here.