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Ban the box, not the books

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 a copy of this newsletter here.


Ban the box, not the books

There’s a lot related to writing and reading in this issue of College Inside. I’ve had the opportunity to work with several incarcerated writers, including a collaboration with Ryan Moser on the first of several stories about surprising barriers to Pell Grants for incarcerated students. We also have information on writing opportunities with partners such as JSTOR Daily

Why college matters

Photo by Eddie Herena

I asked Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, inside co-host of the Ear Hustle Podcast, to write about why college matters for people who are serving long sentences. Jobs and lower recidivism rates can’t measure the success of their college education, he says:

“My pursuit of a degree started in 2016, approximately 16 years into a 55-years-to-life sentence. I would have to live to be 85 years old to evaluate whether an associate’s degree will break the cycle of incarceration that’s circled my adulthood.”

Instead the quality of his education at Mount Tamalpais College — which he’s pursued at San Quentin State Prison, in California — has shown itself in several other ways. Incarcerated students have a positive influence on their families and peers and taking college classes improves how people think about themselves, others, and their futures. 

A few weeks ago, Rahsaan got some big news: his education also is contributing to his opportunity to go home soon. California’s governor cited his college coursework this month in commuting his sentence.

Read the full essay.

A surprising barrier to college in Florida

When Larry Fordham Jr learned about the Second Chance Pell program in 2020, he only wanted one thing: to walk out of a Florida prison with a college degree. 

“I was preparing for my release, and I knew the odds were stacked against me,” Fordham said, “so I wanted an education to level the playing field.”

A surprising barrier nearly got in his way.

Like nearly every public college, Florida colleges charge state residents much lower tuition than students who live outside the state. 

Someone like Fordham, 49, who has been incarcerated in various Florida prisons since 1990, might appear to be the quintessential in-state resident. He most certainly hasn’t left the state for decades.

Yet being locked up in a Florida prison, it turns out, doesn’t make someone a Florida resident, under a state Department of Education statute. Instead, students have to prove that they were living in the state for 12 months prior to being incarcerated to be eligible for in-state tuition.

Many states require students, including those in prison, to be a resident for a year before they’re eligible for in-state tuition, but Florida is an outlier with its explicit ban on establishing residency while in state prisons.

With the broad expansion of Pell Grants for incarcerated students arriving in 2023, the residency requirement will likely become a bigger issue, potentially preventing thousands of people in Florida’s prisons from pursuing higher education. 

Read the full story I co-reported with Ryan Moser here

What the Pell?

Photo: Morgan Godvin

As Morgan Godvin sat in county jail for two years awaiting federal sentencing, she wanted to further her education: 

“For about half of my incarceration, I was unsentenced. I didn’t really know what that meant. I just knew that I had been in county jail for two years and it sucked. And there was just no programming available to me whatsoever.

I remember writing to every single one of my legislators…complaining about the fact that there were no educational opportunities available to me and just what an atrocity of justice that was. 

Months went by, and I got a letter in the mail from [Oregon] Senator Jeff Merkley. And it was telling me, for the first time, that I was eligible for Pell, because I was unsentenced. So that whole time I was in jail, I could have been getting Pell and doing college classes. But no one knew to tell me that, until my United States Senator’s office wrote me back.

By the time I got that letter, I …was days away from getting sentenced. I just remember thinking, ‘But now it’s too late.’ And I was shipped off to federal prison, two months later.”

The Department of Education has clarified that under current rules, people who are incarcerated in local or county jails, or juvenile detention facilities, ARE eligible for Pell grants. The same applies to people in pretrial detention, or who are awaiting sentencing.

Since Morgan was released from federal prison in 2018, she’s created an impressive writing portfolio and recently graduated from Portland State University. She’s now the engagement editor for the American Prison Newspapers collection with JSTOR Daily. Here’s what she has to say about her new job:

“I oversee a primary source archive, full of digitized newspapers produced by and for incarcerated people spanning two centuries.

We’ve been having the same conversations for 200 years. I find things in the archive from decades ago that are hauntingly similar to discussions around reform we’re having currently. From the use of solitary confinement to higher education in prison, the discourse seems to revolve more than it evolves.

If you are interested in writing for JSTOR Daily using the archive (no unsolicited drafts please) or would like to be interviewed about policy shifts, you can email morgan.godvin@ithaka.org .

(For full disclosure, Morgan and I have written together before.)

JSTOR DAILY and Open Campus are collaborating on a project documenting the impact of the 1994 crime bill on prison education. If you’d like to share your story, please contact me or Morgan!

Research news

The Collateral Consequences Resource Center published its annual report, “From Reentry to Reintegration: Criminal Record Reforms in 2021” in January. Seventeen states enacted 26 new laws regulating employment and occupational licensing. Here is the summary of state legislation related to higher education:

Two states passed laws limiting inquiries about criminal records by postsecondary education institutions (Oregon for both public and private institutions, SB 713, and Virginia for public institutions only, HB 1390). Washington expanded postsecondary education programs for incarcerated individuals (HB 1044). 

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. Scott can be reached at shoughton@air.org.

The Journal of Higher Education in Prison 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 jhep@higheredinprison.org.

News & views

University of Oregon Prison Education Program

The University of Oregon’s Prison Education Program is hosting Resonance: Art from Inside, featuring over 30 pieces from 15 incarcerated or formerly incarcerated artists, at the EMU Adell McMillam Gallery on the UO campus until February 4. from See the works online here

Thousands of people in federal prisons will go home after the credit earned from participating in “recidivism reduction programs and productive activities,” including education, were finally applied to sentencing calculations, according to a Department of Justice press release. This adjustment stems from the First Step Act, signed by Trump in 2018. In November, a DOJ investigation found that the Bureau of Prisons did not award credit to about 60,000 people in prison who had completed programs.

Two formerly incarcerated students in Georgia have launched a campaign ahead of the 2022 legislative season to introduce a bill to ban the box asking about criminal histories for applications to the University System of Georgia, reported Hannah E. Jones for the Saporta Report. For more information about the campaign, see www.beyondtheboxga.com.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Educational Justice Institute offered Brave Behind Bars, a computer science class that brought together 25 women from four different facilities in New England. “Prison education courses usually cover general education topics or liberal arts, and women’s prisons are often underserved by educational programs because they have smaller populations,” Meghan Smith wrote for WGBH. “The virtual option allowed MIT to go against both of those norms.”

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, which hears arguments related to governmental operations, struck down a lawsuit filed by Zachary T. Spada against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Spada filed the suit because the DOC, citing disciplinary misconduct, would not allow him to take a paralegal correspondence course, the Altoona Mirror reported. In its opinion, the Court found that “in general, access to education is not guaranteed under the United States Constitution and is not, therefore, considered to be a fundamental right or liberty.” 

Filling a void

Char Adams looks at grassroots organizations across the country that support and advocate for incarcerated people by sending books to prisons for NBCBLK. Book donation programs, which have often been blocked by departments of corrections, fill a void left by poorly stocked prison libraries, Adams writes. 

Earlier this month, a Seattle-based nonprofit Books to Prisoners tweeted that Malcolm X had been rejected by a prison in Tennessee. 

And Marshall Project reporter Keri Blakinger shared a list of all the books banned in Texas prisons:

Let’s connect

Speaking of books, I’ve been reading journalist Chris Hedges’ new book, Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison, about his experience teaching at East Jersey State Prison. My curiosity was piqued when I saw that the book was the focus of a story this month in Baffler magazine, written by Daniel Fernandez, a graduate student in history at the University of Chicago. (Incidentally, I’ve found myself corresponding with one of Hedges’ former students who is featured in the book, which was an interesting coincidence). 

Fernandez, who has also taught in prison, uses Our Class as a jumping off point to look at the history of prison education and to question its purpose. While acknowledging the benefits of prison education for individuals, he wonders whether “more college diplomas will change much inside prisons”:

Journalists, politicians, and penal administrators all tend to glide over prison education’s history of repression and social engineering. And though it’s well known how the individual has become our most important unit of political analysis, it’s worth noting the role this plays in mass incarceration. Rather than transform how the disfavored are treated, our legal institutions have focused on devising reforms that allow an infinitesimal elect to become favorable according to terms set by their subjugators.

This is not to say that people in prison do not achieve remarkable things despite living with violence, persistent human rights abuses, and the ever-looming threat of solitary confinement. But prisons also have a habit of turning the exceptional into the expected, of setting the standards for “good behavior” higher and higher.

What do you think? With the prospect of “more college diplomas” on the horizon through Pell restoration, is there the potential for greater change? What are the possible negative consequences of prison education if it’s not done well? Is providing education to a select few that is inaccessible to others counterproductive?

And something else I’ve been wondering: what is the role of prison libraries in 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 experiencing challenges accessing Pell Grants because of student loan default or people who are participating in prison apprenticeships.

You can always reach me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org on JPay/Securus/Connect Network/Corrlinks 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 

See you in February!

— Charlotte

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