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.

Nothing to do after a high school diploma

Four years ago, Alexandra Fields, an English professor at Middlesex College in Edison, New Jersey, was approached by a social worker from the county juvenile detention center who asked if she would be able to provide any college programming for incarcerated youth. The facility housed a large number of teenagers charged as adults who were awaiting sentencing. 

Young people could earn their high-school diploma at the facility, but there was nothing for graduates to do after that. Fields says that juvenile detention facilities have historically been meant for short stays, with an intentional lack of programming with the idea that youth would be moved in a matter of weeks or months. Instead, some youth have languished for years. “I have a kid that has been in there for six years,” Fields says. 

To help fill the gap, Fields worked with some of her undergraduates to develop informal workshops and a book club for incarcerated high school grads. Those early efforts have led to English composition courses for credit in two county juvenile halls and a new associate’s program for youth incarcerated in New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission facilities. 

While there had been some college classes offered in the state’s youth prisons previously, there was no degree pathway. The first cohort of 20 young men in six facilities will start working on an associate’s degree from Middlesex in mid-February, with plans to expand the program to young women, Fields says.  

Alexandra Fields, a professor at Middlesex College in New Jersey, has helped develop a new associate’s degree program for young people in state youth prisons. Courtesy Alexandra Fields
A shifting population

Along with New Jersey, several states, including Utah and California, have made efforts to increase access to higher education for incarcerated young people. The need to offer more higher education opportunities partly stems from recent juvenile justice reforms that allow young adults to stay in youth facilities for longer.

“Our population is shifting,” says Brett Peterson, director of Utah’s Division of Juvenile Justice Services, which oversees five long-term secure facilities for youth up to age 25. “We’re keeping younger, lower risk youth out of the system. We house youth into young adulthood more commonly now. And so we needed to start aggressively thinking about programming.”

The Utah legislature passed a law last year that allocated $300,000 in ongoing funding to create a program that allowed incarcerated youth to take college classes at Dixie State University. High school students can earn college credit through dual enrollment and graduates are able to start working on their associate’s degree. The program has been able to leverage the state’s distance learning technology used to deliver college classes to rural high schools. 

“It makes you feel smart”

These reforms in Utah and elsewhere are driven by a growing understanding of adolescent development. Research has shown that young people’s brains aren’t fully formed until their early to mid-20s. That’s another reason why having access to higher education can be critical for incarcerated youth, experts say. 

The purpose of the juvenile justice system is inherently different from the adult system, says Katie Bliss, project coordinator at Youth Law Center, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. It’s centrally focused on rehabilitation. “We’re talking about key developmental periods, ” she says. “It’s really setting the stage for the rest of their lives.”

Around 60 of the 80 some young people confined to Utah’s state juvenile facilities have benefitted from the new law. Eighteen-year-old AA is one of them (we are using the initials of the young people interviewed for this article to protect their privacy). 

Taking college classes from Dixie State University changed her perspective on education. “I didn’t really like school to begin with, but I’m starting to like it,” AA says. 

The best thing about it? “I like the part where you think something is hard, and then you get it,” she says. “It makes you feel smart.”

Elsewhere, California passed legislation in 2019 that requires both the state’s three youth prisons (which will be phased out by June 2023) and 59 county probation departments to provide incarcerated juveniles access to college classes as well as career and technical education. More recently, San Francisco State University’s College of Ethnic Studies launched the first certificate program offered inside the state youth prisons by a four-year university. (Read an essay by a student in that program). 

Raising the age

Juvenile justice reforms in a number of other states, too, have increased the need for higher education in youth prisons – the population of which is increasingly traditional college age. In 2018, Vermont became the first state to “raise the age”, automatically keeping most 18-year-olds in the juvenile system. Since then, Michigan and New York have followed suit. 

Some states – such as Washington and Oregon – have also recognized the unique needs of young adults by allowing youth sentenced as adults to remain in the juvenile system up to age 25 before they are transferred to adult facilities. Other states like Colorado have separate adult facilities for young people that provide more education and rehabilitative services. Connecticut and Washington, D.C. have created special housing units for 18-25-year-olds. 

Older youth who have adult sentences also have the added incentive to focus on their education because refusal to participate in programming or behavioral issues can mean they are transferred to the adult system earlier. 

“Ideally, ‘raise the age’ should not be about keeping youth in the system for longer, it should be about recognizing that developmental science shows that young adults have great capacity for change,” Bliss says. 

An inadequate education

Though juvenile facilities, ideally, are supposed to put more focus on rehabilitation than the adult system does, the secondary education offered to incarcerated youth often lacks rigor and doesn’t promote college readiness. A study from Washington state found that 36 percent of youth who had been in juvenile detention were enrolled in college compared to 51 percent of their peers who had not been detained. Only 2 percent of detained students attended a four-year college as opposed to 26 percent of non-detained students. 

A 2019 analysis from Bellwether Education found that students in juvenile justice schools have less access to higher-level math and science courses than their peers in traditional schools. For example, students attending juvenile justice schools were 25 percent less likely to have access to algebra I, a foundational class required for graduation and for college prep. The same study showed that only 1 percent of juvenile justice schools had dual enrollment courses compared with more than half of traditional high schools.

And the states that have raised the upper age for juvenile jurisdiction have faced challenges as they try to accommodate more young adults. At the end of January, Vermont hit pause on expanding plans to keep most 19-year-olds in the juvenile system while it puts “services in place to deal with this age group,” according to a local prosecutor. 

recent article by the Times Union newspapers in Albany, N.Y., posited that “the programs that were supposed to support the state’s Raise the Age statute … have arguably failed to provide many of those teenagers with the services needed to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into their communities.” That law added 16- and 17-year-olds to the list of minors who cannot automatically be tried as adults for felony crimes.

“With ‘raise the age’, building out community college and higher ed programs is about making sure that students who graduate from high school have access to a supportive array of reentry and diversion services,” Bliss says, adding that college programs in detention facilities should never be a justification for keeping youth locked up. 

‘It makes me feel like I’m not just locked up’

That’s where states like Utah, California, and New Jersey could provide models for college programs in youth facilities. These programs serve the dual purpose of degree pathways for high-school graduates, but also provide more challenging classes for current high-school students. And research shows that youth who do achieve higher levels of education while in the juvenile justice system are more likely to experience positive outcomes in the community once released.

JG, 18, has been taking college classes from Dixie State since he graduated from high school last November. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my future, so I decided to give it a chance,” he says. 

His favorite class is ethics, where he’s currently learning about Adam Smith and utilitarianism. He enjoys “understanding the what’s and the why’s of everything.”

JG is set to be released from the Division of Juvenile Justice Services next month, but he’ll be able to finish the semester online. Nathan Caplin, who directs the Dixie State program, says he’s hoping to have a scholarship in place that would cover tuition and allow JS to continue his education.

College programs for incarcerated youth should also provide support services after their release, says Bliss of the Youth Law Center. “You have to have a warm handoff to different aspects of the campus so that you’re not blindly navigating the college experience,” Bliss says. 

As for AA, she’s looking forward to taking more college classes before and after she graduates from high school: “It makes me feel like I’m not just locked up in here. It makes me feel like I have an opportunity to do something better.”

Young voices


I was excited to talk to several young people about their journeys through education for this issue of College Inside. AMR, a 17-year-old incarcerated in southern California, reflected on overcoming a learning disability and graduating as high school valedictorian while she was working on her second semester of college:

“When I was in a school classroom with a pencil and a worksheet in front of me, it was my safe place. But for the first 11 years of my life I struggled to understand why when I read, the letters floated off of the page. 

“We learned that I had comprehension problems, that I had dyslexia and that I had years of hard work to catch up to all of my classmates. When middle school came around, I had finally caught up with the rest of my peers. Actually most days I exceeded my classmates. Middle school was my turning point and for a long while it was toward the worst.

“I ended up being the smart girl who still got A’s while on drugs. I could pass a class drunk and grieving. The two worst years of my life happened to be during middle school and they led to right now sitting in a cell writing this. I had all these plans and then it felt like they swirled down the drain.”

Read AMR’s full essay here

JS, 16, is a high school senior with the Utah Department of Juvenile Justice Services. He shared about overcoming his hesitation to take dual enrollment classes through Dixie State and how education is helping him become a better dad: 

“At first I was like, ‘I’m gonna fail these college classes. I feel like I’m just gonna screw up.’ But I didn’t. I’m taking the opportunity to better myself, so I put all I had into it. I’ve been doing really good with it. It looks good on my transcripts. I’m starting to embrace [education] a lot more than I used to.

“My son’s going to be one in March. I was incarcerated a month after he was born. So that was a really big struggle for me. So I [wanted] to get a good education so I could get a good job so I can raise my son and financially support him the way I wanted to [be supported] when I was growing up.”

Read JS’s full story here at our partner the Prison Journalism Project.

Research & resources

The Youth Law Center publishes College Is For Everyone! A California Financial Aid Guide for Youth with Juvenile Justice Involvement. The guide provides practical types for navigating the confusing layers of state and financial aid and dispels myths that justice-involved youth aren’t eligible for money to go to college. 

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

PEN America is distributing 75,000 copies of The Sentences That Create Us, a book on writing behind bars. A free copy can be requested online at, or write to: Prison Writing Program c/o PEN America, 588 Broadway Suite 303, New York, NY 10012.

News & views

Mount Tamalpais College at San Quentin State Prison received its initial Accreditation by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges at the end of January. (And don’t forget to check out Rahsaan Thomas’ essay on his experience at Mt Tam.) 

Pennsylvania has launched a pilot reentry program that connects formerly incarcerated people in the northeastern part of the state with a bank, a community college, and a mental health provider. The program has the potential to be launched statewide, the AP reports.  

For Mother Jones, Madison Pauly looks into a prison technology company’s foray into the education space. “Now, some critics worry that as financial aid becomes more widely available to prisoners, Aventiv will try to “own that market” on prison education,” Pauly writes. 

David BenMoshe writes about the challenges of applying to graduate school with a record for Business Insider: “Prison is tough, but the three months waiting for a reply from the University of Florida was worse.” 

Cassie M. Chew chronicles the impact of the 1994 crime bill on prison education in Illinois for Capital B News

Let’s connect

We’ll be continuing to cover higher education in juvenile facilities, as well as support programs for formerly incarcerated youth, in upcoming issues. 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 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. 

— Charlotte

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