Welcome to the first edition of College Inside, a biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. My name is Charlotte West and I’m a new national reporter with Open Campus. (Sign up here to get this newsletter.)

A dedicated focus on prison education

For most of my journalism career, I’ve been a freelancer focused on education, and I never imagined that I’d end up exclusively dedicated to covering prison education. I’ve previously written about juvenile justice for publications such as The Appeal, but I had a hard time finding editors who were interested in publishing stories about prison education, despite the fact that it’s a critical topic that more people should read about.

Then, this past summer I talked to Open Campus founders, Scott Smallwood and Sara Hebel. They created this reporting position precisely because college programs in the justice system are under-covered and under-scrutinized. It was an opportunity for me as a journalist to explore the intersection of two systems that shape our society — justice and education — from a racial equity lens.

It’s an exciting time to be starting this venture. Prison education is at a critical juncture, with the lasting impacts of the pandemic and the restoration of Pell Grants for people in prison on the horizon.

The number of college programs available to the 1.8 million people in prison in the United States is expected to grow over the next several years as eligibility for Pell Grants — the largest federal financial aid program for low-income students — is expanded to include students who are incarcerated.

This will begin to reverse what happened in the aftermath of the 1994 crime bill, which abruptly eliminated the ability of people in prison to use Pell Grants to pay for higher education. Overnight, the number of college programs in prisons dropped from almost 800 operating in 1300 facilities to just a handful, almost all of which were privately funded. As prison education shuttered across the country, the number of incarcerated students also plummeted.

A year ago, Congress reversed the 26-year ban, once again expanding access to Pell Grants to include students incarcerated in state prisons or the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Building on a number of Second Chance pilot programs around the country, full Pell restoration will roll out by July 2023.

The Department of Education is currently in the process of deciding what the restoration of Pell Grants for people in prison will look like through its negotiated rulemaking process— known by the wonderful shorthand of “neg reg.” Those discussions will ultimately help determine things like who gets to decide which programs are eligible for Pell funding and how to measure the quality of prison education programs. Keep following this newsletter for updates.

What to expect from this newsletter

To get up to speed on the current landscape of prison education, I’ve spent the last two months talking to researchers, professors, advocates, prison officials and currently and formerly incarcerated students. I’ve experienced the challenges of communicating with people in prison — I now have accounts with four different companies that provide secure email services to different state correctional departments and the federal Bureau of Prisons.

When my phone rings from an unknown number, I hope that it’s someone inside rather than a telemarketer. And I’ve received effusive, handwritten letters from incarcerated people who were excited to share both the challenges and opportunities of college inside.

In addition to following the conversations about Pell Grants, I’ll look into topics such as prison apprenticeships, the value of liberal arts education behind bars, the role of technology in prison education and what happens to education programs when facilities shut down.

I’ll also be focusing on how programs are delivered and who gets access to them, as well as the challenges that formerly incarcerated students face in navigating both higher education and the workforce. Additionally, I’m interested in college readiness and higher education opportunities for youth in the juvenile justice system.

College Inside will arrive in your inbox every two weeks, with both shorter news bites and longform investigative stories. You can also expect to see collaboration with my Open Campus colleagues Nick Fouriezos, who covers rural education, and Naomi Harris, who writes about race and equity in higher education, on stories where our coverage overlaps. (Don’t forget to sign up for their newsletters, Mile Markers and The Intersection!)

I’m particularly excited about the opportunity to work with incarcerated writers, who will be reporting on programs in their facilities and sharing their own experiences with education inside.

Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. Right now, I’m especially interested in speaking with anyone who has had their education interrupted by a prison transfer or a facility being shut down, as well as learning more about the intersection of correctional industries and vocational training programs. You can always reach me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org or on Twitter at @szarlotka.

To reach me via snail mail, you can write to:

Charlotte West

Open Campus Media

2460 17th Avenue #1015

Santa Cruz, CA 95062

Research news

A new report, “The Landscape of Higher Education in Prison,” provides an overview of prison education programs as of 2019–20, just before the pandemic hit. The survey, which combines program details added to the National Directory of Higher Education in Prisons Programs and responses to the 2021 Annual Survey of Higher Education in Prison Programs, is one of the first attempts to create a comprehensive map of what’s being offered.

Among the 372 prison education programs reflected in the report, almost 60 percent were at two-year colleges. Private four-year colleges were more likely than public four-year universities to offer programs.

Here are some of the other major findings:

  • North Carolina and California have the largest number of prison education programs, with 45 and 38 programs respectively.
  • Pre-pandemic, most prison education programs (64 percent) offered face-to-face, in-person instruction on-site. The number of programs reporting remote instruction was small but growing.
  • The majority of responding programs (76 percent) offered postsecondary, vocational, or career and technical (CTE) coursework for credit.

The report was produced by researchers at the University of California Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy, the University of Utah Prison Education Project and the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison.

Recommended reading

Jay Boyer, a student at San Diego Mesa College, sought help from the Rising Scholars Network after finding herself homeless upon her release from jail. Brittany Cruz-Fejeran for CalMatters

Jay Boyer, a student at San Diego Mesa College, sought help from the Rising Scholars Network after finding herself homeless upon her release from jail. Brittany Cruz-Fejeran for CalMatters

In “Is new support the key to success for formerly incarcerated community college students?”, Emily Forschen, a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, writes about Rising Scholars, a support program for currently and formerly incarcerated students in California’s community college system that just received new funding from the California state legislature.

Monique Ositelu, senior policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America, has been following the conversations about Pell restoration currently happening within the Department of Ed. In “What Happened at Negotiated Rulemaking’s Prison Education Program Subcommittee,” she notes: “Equity was at the forefront for many subcommittee members during their first session of meetings…as well as quality and appropriate metrics to ensure student success within a carcel learning environment.”

Danielle Dreilinger dives into federally-funded career and technical education courses at prisons in Idaho for The Hechinger Report: “Experts agree that one of the most important things career training in prison can provide is a credential that’s recognized on the outside.”

Marisol Garcia, a formerly incarcerated public policy and law major at Trinity College, shares her own story about college inside in Diverse Education: “Prison education programs have provided me with the knowledge I needed to return to my community and the ambition to eventually work with lawmakers on sentencing policy, sentencing reform, and alternatives to prison that reduce recidivism rates.”

Los Angeles Times reporter Colleen Shalby writes about the first class graduating from the California State University Los Angeles bachelor’s program at the California State Prison, a men’s facility in Lancaster, California: “They were supposed to die in prison. Instead, they earned freedom as college graduates.”

Meghan Bobrovsky, a former fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, writes about a new prison bachelor’s degree at Pitzer College that brings incarcerated students together with their peers from the outside.

Let’s connect

Thanks for reading. With this newsletter I’m hoping to build a community of people who care deeply about these issues.

Please share this with others who might be interested. They can subscribe here. (And we are working on figuring out print distribution for folks inside!)

I want to learn from you and hear what you think is missing in the conversation about prison education. This week, tell me: What is one thing would you change about how college in prison works? I’ll share some responses in the next issue.

Finally, Open Campus is joining over 300 organizations across the country in a year-end fund-raising campaign to sustain nonprofit newsrooms like ours. From now through Dec. 31, your donation of up to $1,000 will be matched, thanks to NewsMatch. Help support my coverage of prison education!

— Charlotte

Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.