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Misconceptions of teaching inside

Welcome to the second 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


Misconceptions, rules, and the power of self-discovery

Even before I started covering college programs in prisons, one of my favorite podcasts was Ear Hustle, which focuses on life inside San Quentin State Prison in the Bay Area. When I found out that Nigel Poor, one of the co-producers of Ear Hustle first got involved with San Quentin as a volunteer professor, I reached out to talk about her experience teaching in prison. 

In addition to her work with Ear Hustle, Poor is a visual artist and photography professor at California State University-Sacramento. She started teaching a history of photography class with the Prison University Project, now known as Mount Tamalpais College, at San Quentin in 2011.

Poor says that the stories she heard from the men inside San Quentin inspired her to think about how to do artistic projects inside and she began to volunteer with the prison’s media lab. All of that eventually led to her collaboration on Ear Hustle. She co-hosts the podcast with Earlonne Woods and Rahsaan “New York” Thomas.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read the full interview here

Q. You mentioned that your conversation with the Prison University Project director Jody Lewin helped you feel prepared to teach in prison. What do you think are some of the misconceptions that people might have about prison education?

A. I think people have misconceptions, first of all, that they’re going to go into this really angry space where people aren’t educated. And that you’re going to be a remedial teacher getting people up to speed because they don’t know how to read and they don’t have basic math skills. And at least at San Quentin, that was not the case. I went into a classroom that was full of people that were really excited to learn and eager to learn. I had students that had master’s degrees. And I had students that had gotten GEDs and had very little formal education but were really prepared to dig in and work hard.

I had to be careful to not go back to my students at Sac State and say, ‘My students in prison work so much harder than you.’ I never get an excuse about why they couldn’t do something. I found very hard-working, rigorous students. 

I think that there’s more nuanced things like people going into prison thinking they’re going to save people. There are complex relationships, and you’re going in as a professional to do a job, which is to teach. You’re not going in as a therapist or savior. You bring that respect and expectation to the classroom that you would bring to any other classroom.

Q. Were there any rules about what class material you could or couldn’t use? We have this idea of academic freedom on college campuses, but I would imagine that there might be some different rules that you as a faculty member have to follow when teaching in prison. 

A. This is what I would tell people: You can have the most radical ideas you want. And you can think that you need to tear prisons down. But when you go into work in a prison, you have to respect the rules that are there. Because you can have all the passion to politically change things, but you always walk out the gate. You can leave behind a shitstorm and cause a lot of problems.

You have to figure out for yourself how to work within a system that you may not respect or respond to, but you have to remember that you always walk out the gate. And I think some people can go on without really thinking about how much trouble you can get other people in if you don’t think through your passions and your ideas.

That being said, I went in pretty naive. I thought, ‘Oh, I’m just going to teach the class I teach at Sac State, I’m going to bring in my PowerPoints on my computer. And I’m going to show all the work that I show.’ And then first thing, Jody was like, ‘No, of course not, you’re not bringing a computer in. You’re going to be using a television to show your PowerPoints.’

And then [I was told by] the prison that I couldn’t show any nudes, no pictures of children, no pictures of violence, drug use or emotionally complex imagery. And I was like, ‘What the hell am I going to teach?’ That is what photography is, it’s about looking at complex issues. The only thing that would be left would be landscape imagery.

But then Jody set up an opportunity for me to meet with the assistant warden to show them what I was going to teach. And so we met and had like a three hour meeting. And I went through a lot of the images that I was going to show and we had a great conversation. And they gave me permission to bring in most of the images, except some images of children. 

What that taught me was the really deep importance of conversation and understanding the world that you’re walking into. And that even if you disagree with people, they’re not the enemy. You can have conversations, and you can come to an understanding. The administration at the prison needed to understand what I was going to show and they needed to feel that they had some control over it. At first, I was upset, but I realized having this conversation opened it up.

Q. Education is a theme that comes up tangentially in many Ear Hustle episodes. I was recently listening to Catch a Kite 6. When you asked about their proudest moments, Sam Lewis talked about earning his degree and Reggie Thorpe shared how he felt when he found out he was the only African American at San Quentin who had taken Calculus II. Why was that such a big deal for them?

A. I think because it’s about self-discovery and realizing your own talents and your own power. For people inside or outside prison, when you realize you can do something that you thought you couldn’t do, it is such a great feeling. It’s exhilarating. And like Reggie talking about doing calculus, that sounds so frightening to me. And I can imagine when he realized he was good at it and he could help other people, it was like he could all of a sudden see himself in a different way as a leader and someone who could teach, not as someone who’s been incarcerated for a long time. I’m sure he’s gone through a lot of periods where he felt unseen and unworthy. And so I think education tells you are worthy of something. And that’s just an essential human need. I think that just shows you your own self-worth when you can help bring other people along. 

Read the full interview here

So what’s happening with Pell?

Last week, the Education Department’s higher ed committee wrapped up its “negotiated rulemaking”, aka “negreg”, process for Pell restoration. Some of the key issues focused on what metrics will be used to determine whether a program meets “the best interest of students” and if programs can be offered in fields such as nursing where there are sometimes restrictions on occupational licensing for people who have convictions. Here are some of the highlights of the conversation:

The 2020 law passed by Congress that lifted the ban on Pell for prisoners gives state corrections departments and the federal Bureau of Prisons the final authority on which prison education programs can be offered in their facilities.

Several members of the prison ed subcommittee were concerned about this provision. “The DOC is not an educational institution, yet they are able to make all of the educational decisions,” says Terrence S. McTier, director of the Prison Education Project at Washington University in St. Louis.

Bradley Custer, a senior policy analyst for Higher Education at American Progress who live tweeted the process, says that a department of corrections can’t be forced to approve a prison education program. State higher ed agencies need to work together with departments of corrections to ensure access for students.

 “Colleges will have to do some nudging and relationship building with their local prisons and state DOCs,” he says. 

What the requirement means in practice is that incarcerated students can only participate in prison education programs that have been approved by the department of corrections in their state or the Bureau of Prisons for federal facilities. For example, a student in Iowa wouldn’t be able to apply for Pell and enroll in a program in Colorado unless that program had been approved by the Iowa Department of Corrections.

“Any college that thinks it can easily expand into many states with an online or correspondence course program is first going to have to go through the full prison education approval process in each state,” Custer says.

While full Pell expansion in July 2023 will greatly expand the number of prison education programs in the United States, incarcerated students in some locations, particularly in rural areas, might still face significant challenges in terms of access to higher ed.

McTier acknowledged that one of the ideas behind the provision was to prevent programs from taking advantage of students. “One of the good things that the Department of Ed is trying to make sure doesn’t happen is where predatory programs come in just so they can get the Pell dollars, and then just mislead the student on this path that doesn’t lead to anywhere,” McTier says.

The Education Department also clarified that only nonprofit public and private colleges are eligible to receive Pell funding for prison education programs.

As a result of the subcommittee conversations, there is now language in the draft text (which you can find here) that corrections departments should be advised by a group of relevant stakeholders, which include representatives of currently and formerly incarcerated students, colleges and universities and accrediting agencies. 

California in focus

Is there legislation about postsecondary education or innovative programs in your state that I should know about? Please write to me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org.

This week, around 3,000 incarcerated college students at seven California prisons will be receiving laptops that they will be able to take back to their cells to work on their homework. The laptops are not connected to the Internet, but students will be able to upload assignments and interact with their professors via Canvas, a learning management software program, via a secure network. 

The first group of students to receive devices are enrolled in face-to-face associate’s and bachelor’s degree granting programs, says Brant Choate, director of the Division of Rehabilitative Programs for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

“We now have dozens of college faculty that we’re working with to get their courses converted,” Choate says. 

The department plans to issue another 12,000 laptops to all incarcerated students at its 35 adult facilities in both face-to-face and correspondence programs next year. Students in literacy programs and those who are participating in substance abuse treatment programs are slated to receive devices in 2023. “At the end of the day, it’ll be some 37,000 laptops,” Choate says. 

There will always be some students who are only able to access education via correspondence classes, Choate notes. But the goal is that for most students, correspondence courses will supplement face-to-face instruction. If a local college can’t find a faculty member to teach a specific class, then students might take a correspondence course instead. 

Choate says safety and security concerns about issuing laptops to incarcerated students are overblown. “What you hear from somebody on the custody side is that [students] are going to hide drugs in them, or they’re going to turn them into weapons,” he says. “If they’re gonna hide drugs, they’re gonna hide it somewhere. You don’t need a laptop. And if they do, then we’ll take it away from them.”

Students enrolled in face-to-face programs at Folsom, Mule Creek, Valley State, Central California Women’s Facility, California Rehabilitation Center, RJ Donovan and Lancaster prisons will be the first to receive laptops for college classes starting in January. 

Choate says the tech rollout has been bolstered by a new law signed by California Governor Gavin Newsom in October that prioritizes education programs that provide face-to-face, classroom based instruction and that allow students use their credits towards degrees. The bill also amends state law to recognize full-time studies as full-time work or training. It also stipulates that only nonprofit, regionally accredited institutions are allowed to provide higher education in California prisons. 

The new legislation also encourages prison officials not to transfer students who are in the middle of college programs, Choate says. 

Research news

A new study, “The Effects of College in Prison and Policy,” drawing on 20 years of data from the liberal arts program Bard Prison Initiative, was published earlier this month in Justice Quarterly. The report is “the largest study published to-date of a single college-in-prison program.” The study found that participation in the Bard program substantially reduces recidivism and that there is a close correlation between greater levels of participation and even lower rates of recidivism. The authors argue that although prison education programs should be judged by more expansive measures than recidivism, understanding recidivism also helps us understand to what extent education can help address the underlying causes of recidivism. 

The Journal of Higher Education in Prison published its first volume earlier this year. It’s the only open access, peer-reviewed journal that publishes exclusively on topics and issues affecting the field of higher education in prison. The journal is accepting submissions until March 1, 2022 for its second volume on the question: What are the possibilities and limitations of teaching and learning in prison spaces? For more information on receiving a copy of the journal or how to send a submission, email jhep@higheredinprison.org or write to:

Alliance for Higher Education in Prison
Attn: Journal of Higher Education in Prison
1801 N. Broadway, Suite 417
Denver, CO 80202

In “An Education While Incarcerated”, Hua Hsu profiles Eddy Zheng, an immigrant from China who was incarcerated at San Quentin at age 16, for The New Yorker. Hsu first met Zheng in 1998 as Berkeley undergraduate volunteering in San Quentin through the Prison University Project, which granted college credit through Patten College: 

“Most of us were middle-class kids walking into a prison for the first time. We couldn’t wear blue (the color of the inmates’ uniforms), but the searches of our backpacks and jackets were perfunctory. The inmates took college-level courses, and we talked them through their assigned readings about due process, Emma Goldman, the bicameral system. We told them about innovations in pizza and computing. They taught us about Stevie Wonder, the power of poetry, the bus systems of Los Angeles, the importance of looking someone in the eye when you spoke to him. We never asked what any of them had done to end up in prison.”

As part of the New York Times’ “It’s Never Too Late” series, Chris Colin interviews Devon Simmons, who served 15 years in prison after being incarcerated as a teenager. Colin writes that since he was released in 2014, Simmons has “made it his mission to remake not just his own life, but to change the educational and career opportunities afforded to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, and the way society thinks about that population in the first place.”

In Wyoming, rehabilitation involves wild horses. For Deseret News, Lauren Steele writes about the Wyoming Honor Farm, a minimum security prison located near the small town of Riverton, Wyoming. In 1931, “the farm started as an experiment. What if 30 inmates with marked good behavior were allowed to leave high-security facilities to maintain a working farm — complete with beef cattle, swine, poultry, crops, dairy and butchering operations? …

Over the years, the farm grew. In 1985, a new dormitory was built to accommodate 40 inmates. That expanded to three more dorms and more than 200 inmates some years. A vocational education shop was built, land was leased from the state to graze cattle and an education center was established. The Wyoming Department of Corrections wanted the farm to be a place where inmates could change the course of their lives. And it just might be working. According to the corrections department, the Wyoming Honor Farm has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the nation.”

Let’s connect

Thanks for reading. With this newsletter I’m hoping to build a community of people who care deeply about these issues. I want to hear what you think is missing in the conversation about prison education. Please share this newsletter with others who might be interested. They can subscribe here. (And we are working on figuring out print distribution for folks inside!)

Please reach out 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. I’m also looking to talk to people who have pursued graduate degrees while incarcerated, as well as those who have inspired their children to pursue higher ed. 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 

In the last issue, I asked: What is one thing would you change about how college in prison works? Timothy Pauley, who is incarcerated in Washington State, wrote:

“The one thing I would change is to stop dumbing it down. Keep the level of academic rigor the same as out there. Then the degrees will have value. This can easily be accomplished for little or no cost. Using graduates to help properly prepare people for college is the key, in my opinion.

“A lot of guys will complete the program and want to remain involved. This is a good way to keep them engaged while preparing those entering the program. if the program excludes long term prisoners, as some often do, this [also] needs to change. Those students are the foundation of your support network. They pay dividends far in excess of the resources expended to educate them.”

Heather Lavelle, who is incarcerated in Pennsylvania, shared the following:

“I’d make it that we could take courses online like the rest of the world is doing. Having access to professors and other learners is an important part of the process that we totally miss out on.”

This week, I’d like to ask: What metrics should we use to measure the value of a prison education program?

I’ll be taking a break over the holidays, so you can expect the next issue of College Inside in your inbox on January 12th. For something to look forward to, I’ll just say that I’m really excited that we’ll be publishing our first story by an incarcerated journalist. 

In the meantime, if you can’t wait for more education news, sign up for my colleagues’ newsletters, Mile Markers on rural education and The Intersection on diversity and equity in higher ed!

Finally, if you’re looking for those end-of-the-year tax write-offs (and anyone can deduct up to $300 in donations even if you don’t itemize), 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!

Happy holidays!

— Charlotte

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