Illustration by Emily Forschen

Welcome to College Inside, a newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. I’m Charlotte West, a national reporter for Open Campus. Sign up for your own copy of this newsletter here.

Letters from inside

After spending a month in Colorado for the holidays, I came back home to a mailbox filled with letters from all over the country. People have shared not only stories about the transformational power of education, but also their frustrations of being shut out of opportunities because of the length of sentences or long waiting lists. 

Chanell Burnette, who is incarcerated at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Virginia, said that vocational classes are limited to “once per stay.” “If an individual has a sentence of 50 years, they are only permitted to take one course. The same for an individual serving a life sentence,” she wrote. “So what are they going to do with all the idle time they have?”

Floyd Ray, Jr, who is a resident of San Quentin and student at Mount Tamalpais College, reflected that education and mental health go hand in hand. “What college programs, such as Mount Tamalpais, can present offenders like myself is not what to think but how to think. These type of in-house academic colleges can contribute to understanding what is taught in mental health and self-help groups that are designed to bring about change in behavior,” he wrote. 

‘Cancelled until further notice’

Through my conversations and correspondence, it’s also become clear that the impact of the pandemic on prison education programs is not yet over. With the recent surge in with omicron cases, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has been on lockdown since Jan. 9 with at least another two weeks of restrictions.

Dorothy Maraglino, who is incarcerated at Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, said that they have received a memo from the warden that says: “Education is cancelled until further notice.”

“We are hoping that the education facilitators will at least send packets to keep students on track with their educational goals,” she wrote. “This will ultimately depend on how widespread the latest outbreak is, if the facilitators are willing to come into a facility with a COVID outbreak etc.”

Others have reported that education programs are being impacted by pandemic-related staff shortages. In Colorado, prisons are also on lockdown. Educational staff are being diverted to security positions, which has led to suspension of programming, Anthony Valdez said. 

‘Eventually luck got a hold of me’

Tomas Keen, a writer incarcerated in Washington State, gives a graduation speech in 2019. Screenshot from Youtube

I’m excited to share an essay by Tomas Keen, a writer who is incarcerated in Washington State. Even after the government gave up on college for prisoners, many private funders did not, he writes. He also discusses recent legislation in Washington that boosts state funding for prison ed. Here’s an excerpt from his essay:

“By the time I entered prison in 2010, the fallout from gutted funding was everywhere. Scarce opportunities had soured the culture in prison. Without constructive outlets, many prisoners who otherwise would have excelled were left bored and stationary⁠—and you know what they say about idle hands.

Old timers I met spoke of days when educational programs filled every room in the school buildings. But all I saw were classrooms retrofitted as office space.

Still suffering from first-grade naivety, I spent my first six years buying into and perpetuating the toxic culture clouding the facilities. I bounced from place to place, spending large chunks of time in solitary confinement…

Eventually luck got a hold of me and I was transferred to the Washington State Reformatory. And there I learned that even after the government gave up on college for prisoners, many private funders did not.”

Read Tomas’ full essay here.

From rehabilitation to warehousing

As we look forward to Pell restoration in 2023, I’ve been wondering what it was like in 1994 when college programs across the country were suddenly shuttered after a federal law eliminated financial aid for people in prisons. Last month, I talked to Sean Pica, the executive director of Hudson Link, a nonprofit that operates prison education programs in five correctional facilities across New York. 

As a 16-year-old with a ninth grade education, Sean was sentenced to 24 years in prison in 1987. He was encouraged by older men to finish his high school education and earned his GED, eventually finding his way to college at a time when the value of prison education was being called into question. Here’s some of what he shared:

Sean Pica, executive director of Hudson Link

“There was always this thought that you needed to deserve college to get it. The officers were like, ‘My kids can’t go to college. But these guys in prison get to go.’ So you’re hard on yourself, because you think, ‘Well, I don’t even deserve what I’m getting here.’ 

By the time I got to ’94 I was in Skidmore University. I had 118 credits or something like that. And now at this point, it’s not getting taken away because I fucked up. It’s not because I went to solitary, it’s not because I made a mistake or had poor judgment. So in some ways, you’re a little resentful that ‘I’m finally getting my shit together. And now I’m still not finishing after all these credits.’ And Skidmore University came in and packed up their books and their supplies with very little explanation. And then it was just gone. 

And because that happened, my college hold [which prevented me from being transferred] got lifted. And I went to Sing Sing, which was closer to home. That’s about the only benefit of being in Sing Sing. It’s 200 years old, so when it rains outside, it rains inside. So getting moved to Sing Sing and losing college and going through all this was just a real ‘fuck you’ in a life of many ‘fuck yous.’”

Gene Scott was sentenced to life as a 19-year-old in Oklahoma in 1990 before he was able to transfer back home to South Carolina through an interstate compact. He was in the last semester of a vocational program when the 1994 crime bill passed. Gene, who is now working as a mentor to young men in the system, shared the story of a professor who made an uncanny prediction about the future of college-in-prison programs:

“The professor came in and told us the news and a lot of us in the class at that time were lifers. And he was like, ‘Look guys, I got some good news and I got some bad news. The good news is that you’re graduating.’ [The bad news was that] the Pell grant would be taken from us, we would no longer be getting funding, so there wouldn’t be any [post]secondary education.  

And I’ll never forget what he said. He was like, ‘Don’t get in any trouble. Stay discipline free, because what you’re getting ready to go through is called a ‘pendulum factor.’ You’re getting ready to witness the department of corrections going strictly to warehousing and then after a minimum of 20 years, it’ll sway back to rehabilitation.’ And I’ve been holding on to that for 20 some years [waiting] for it to sway back.

If you have firsthand experience of the shift in prison education as a student or educator during the 1990s, please reach out to me to contribute to a larger story Open Campus is publishing in collaboration with JSTOR Daily. 

In Congress

In October, Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA) and Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) reintroduced the Promoting Reentry through Education in Prisons (PREP) Act. The bill would create an office of prison education within the federal Bureau of Prisons, in addition to notifying veterans incarcerated in state and federal prisons about their eligibility for education benefits.

“Through the establishment of the Office of Prison Education within the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), educational programs will be standardized across all federal prisons,” said Yannick Gill, legislative counsel for Rep. Dean. 

The office would be required to ensure that BOP provides educational services across the spectrum—adult literacy, GED, postsecondary, workforce readiness, apprenticeships, career and technical education, and expanded opportunities for individuals with learning disabilities, Gill said.

The bill would allocate $170 million for FY 2022-2026 to the Bureau of Prisons. 

In August, Dean and Schatz also introduced the Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act of 2021, which would require the Department of Education to issue guidance for colleges to remove criminal and juvenile justice questions from their admission applications.

Research news

The American Institutes for Research (AIR), with funding from Ascendium, is embarking on a study of prison higher education programs that use distance and/or online learning approaches. The research team wants to gather information on how established programs are providing college credit courses within prisons via distance and online formats. If you run a distance education program, researcher Scott Houghton and his colleagues would love to connect with you to learn about your program and tell you more about the study. Scott can be reached at

The Journal of Higher Education in Prison published its first volume in 2020. 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, write to or

Alliance for Higher Education in Prison

Attn: Journal of Higher Education in Prison

1801 N. Broadway, Suite 417

Denver, CO 80202

News and views

In early January, New York Governor Kathy Hochul (D) announced her ‘Jails to Jobs’ initiative, which will include legislation to restore the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) for incarcerated New Yorkers. Following the federal Pell grant ban, New York lawmakers prohibited incarcerated students from receiving state financial aid in 1995. The proposal would make New York the second state to repeal a state-wide ban following New Jersey, which put into effect a similar law in 2020.

For The 19th, Candice Norwood looks at Northwestern University’s four-year liberal arts degree for women at Logan Correctional Center in Illinois. “Though the number of incarcerated women is growing at a rate outpacing men, correctional programming for women is lagging,” Norwood writes.

California State University Los Angeles will launch California’s first in-person bachelor’s program for incarcerated women at the California Institution For Women in Chino with a $900,000 grant from the Justice Department. The program will start in fall 2022, according to college officials.

Ten women incarcerated at the Women’s Prison in Pierre, South Dakota will earn a one-semester precision machining certificate through Lake Area Technical College. Students, who are within six months of release, will learn manual mills and lathes and Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining.

Focusing on the Lipscomb University LIFE program, Kelsey Beyeler dives into how the pandemic impacted the higher education programs offered in Tennessee prisons for Nashville Scene

Kevin McCarthy was the first incarcerated applicant ever accepted to University of California Berkeley. Nanette Asimov profiles McCarthy for the San Francisco Chronicle, tracing his journey from windowless cell at Pelican Bay State Prison to a college classroom in Berkeley. 

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers (D) announced in December that the state is allocating $5.7 million to jump start a college program for incarcerated students at five University of Wisconsin campuses across the state.

The College at Southeastern, the undergraduate school of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, offers the only four-year in-person bachelor’s program in the North Carolina prison system. Yonat Shimron looks at the movement of evangelical seminaries, colleges and universities to rehabilitate people in prison through education.

In October, Republican Florida state senator Jeff Brandes  introduced a bill that would offer online learning to people in prison through the Florida Virtual School. “Florida houses upwards of 80,000 inmates, and about half cannot read at a sixth-grade level. In part, this is due to a lack of educators,” Mark Parker writes for the St Pete Catalyst. “Brandes said Florida’s prison facilities house an average of 1,500 inmates while only employing one or two – often zero – educators.”

Let’s connect

Lots of mail! Photo by Charlotte West

Thanks for reading. 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

In the last issue, I posed the following question: What metrics should we use to measure the value of a prison education program?

Lavonta Bass, who is incarcerated in New Jersey, wrote that prison education programs should measure the outcomes for both people who are released as well as those who remain inside:

“The metrics that should be used to measure the value of a prison education program when a prisoner is released are: one, if the prisoner is reincarcerated within a certain period; two, the prisoners sustainability of employment; and three, is the employment in the field the prisoner was educated in.

The metrics that should be used to measure the value of a prison education program if prisoners are still incarcerated are: Compare the amount of trouble prisoners get in before they receive a formal education and after they receive a formal education, and next, interview staff and compare the prisons’ staff view of the prisoner before and after a formal education.”

This issue, I’d like to ask: How is the pandemic continuing to impact prison education?

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 shut out of educational opportunities because of the length of their sentence who are now looking at getting out sooner than expected because of federal and state sentencing reform. We’re also doing a series of stories on hidden barriers to federal and state financial aid, such as student loan default and state residency requirements.

You can always reach me at 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 

Here’s to a hopeful 2022!

— Charlotte

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