A mural at the Cesar Chavez Student Center at San Francisco State. Image courtesy of San Francisco State University.

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.

Pursuing a Ph.D. from prison

Two years ago Brandon Brown became the first person to earn a graduate degree while incarcerated in the state of Maine. Now he is pursuing a Ph.D. in restorative justice from George Mason University, in Virginia.

Brown was able to take advantage of a department of corrections policy that allowed supervised virtual learning when he enrolled in an online masters program. Now, halfway through the second semester of his doctoral program, he’s been released on a community confinement program thanks to legislation that he helped author.

I talked with Brown about navigating higher education in prison and how his efforts have helped pave the way for at least six other people in Maine prisons to pursue online graduate programs.

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

Q. How did you get involved in prison education?

A. I got really lucky. When I arrived at Maine State Prison from the county jail, I immediately started putting in requests to get involved in something positive. Because I had my high school diploma, the education department reached out and said there was an opportunity if I wanted to work towards a college degree.

Q. When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a graduate degree?

A. In 2014, I was two classes away from my bachelor’s degree. And then I was transferred to a medium security prison from the maximum security prison. I thought for sure that there were going to be more opportunities for me. And the opposite was true, there was nothing to do at that facility.

The [administration at] the facility didn’t care that I still had funding and the university was willing to assist me with independent studies. And so I was there for two years, without education, and without other positive aspects of contributing to my community. I just got in a really dark place. I was eventually able to secure my transfer back to the prison that I came from. And so when I got back to that prison, I was able to get right back into the college program.

We had a really progressive warden at that moment. And so I just approached him a couple times and asked him if he would support me if I could find a master’s degree program that was correspondence or online learning. The Maine Department of Corrections had a policy for a long time that allows you to do supervised online learning, they just never used it. When I was talking to the admin, they’re like, ‘This guy’s out of his mind, nobody’s going to accept him into a program.’ So they just said, ‘Yes, if you can get accepted, we’ll facilitate it.’ And then I got accepted and they had to keep their word. 

Q. What do you want people to know about your story?

A. When people find out that I’m getting my Ph.D., I always get comments like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re so articulate, and it’s so surprising.’ And I’m like, ‘Why is it surprising? Why is it surprising to you that a prisoner can rise to the same academic and educational level as you when given a chance to do so?’

I don’t believe I’m exceptional, only that I had exceptional opportunities. It gets under my skin when all people want to talk about is how I did this; it doesn’t matter how I did it unless we can make it possible for other people. 

Q. What advice do you offer other incarcerated people who want to pursue higher education?

A. If you believe your story, and if you can tell it in a compelling way, then you can convince people to give you chances and opportunities. Because if you want to get an education, but you’re apprehensive about telling parts of your story, or you’re scared to be honest about what it is that brought you to prison and what your experience in prison has been, then how are you not going to expect that apprehension from the people that make the decisions about your education? Explore within yourself what’s powerful about your story and why it uniquely situates you to do something meaningful within the framework of what you want to study.

A change in narrative

Emma Hall, a student at Sacramento State University and a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, covered a new certificate program offered to young people incarcerated in California’s three juvenile justice facilities. Ethnic studies offers young people a new narrative about their history and culture, Emma writes.

Ethnic studies — the social and historical study of race and ethnicity — was born in the Bay Area at San Francisco State University in the 1960s as a response from students of color who demanded increased access to higher education and new academic programs that centered their identities.

With its new collaboration with California’s state juvenile justice division, which began this past fall, officials at San Francisco State want to broaden that mission to include youth directly impacted by the justice system.

Almost 90 percent of the approximately 750 youth in California’s juvenile justice system are Black or Latino, and the San Francisco State program reflects those demographics. Black youth are 31 times more likely to be incarcerated in California, with Latino youth almost 5 times more likely, compared to their white peers.

Proponents of ethnic studies argue that students of color, who are at greater risk of being kicked out of school and into the justice system, can become more invested in their education when they learn about the accomplishments of people who look like them, thus disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Poverty and over-policing in communities of color are a lot of reasons why people end up in the prison system,” said Professor Nate Tan, who teaches the class. “I think that’s true for these young people.”

Read Emma’s full story here.

Expanding prison education in Colorado

Jason Gonzales, the higher education reporter at our partner Chalkbeat Colorado, reported on the likely expansion of Pell Grants for incarcerated students in Colorado. Jason profiled 22-year-old Demitrius Herron, who earned two associate’s degrees through a Second Chance Pell program at Trinidad State College:

“There’s a lot of people who were victims of circumstance,” Herron said. “They weren’t given the belief or confidence that they had all the same opportunities as everyone else.”

When he entered prison, Herron said he wasn’t confident. He was sad and depressed. But education helped him grow in ways he never thought possible. He was a speaker at his graduation ceremony, graduated magna cum laude, and after release, enrolled at Colorado State University Pueblo.

Trinidad State College began enrolling students through the program in 2020 and enrolled about 74 incarcerated students in the fall, according to LiAnn Richardson, the college’s division chair for prison education.

Eleven incarcerated students in the fall 2020 class have earned associate degrees.

Read Jason’s full story here.

Research & resources

The University of Southern California Dornsife Prison Education Project is sponsoring the National Adult and Youth Systems-Impacted Writers Awards. They are inviting writers to share their educational experiences both inside and outside of the classroom in a piece of creative writing. Deadline is April 1 and details on criteria, eligibility, and how to submit are available here

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 https://t.co/ST7zHTQawK, or by writing to: Prison Writing Program c/o PEN America, 588 Broadway Suite 303, New York, NY 10012.

Ithaka S+R and Ennead Lab are launching a two-year research and design project to look at the challenges and opportunities of the physical spaces where higher education is delivered in prison. If you or your program have experienced challenges related to space, have implemented novel solutions to ease this constraint, or wish to learn more about the project, please contact kurtis.tanaka@ithaka.org.

News & views

A bill on prison education put forth by Florida state senator Jeff Brandes, a Republican, is making progress. The bill calls for an investment of almost $3.4 million to offer online high school classes to Florida’s 1,600 some prisoners under the age of 22. More than 70 percent of them do not have a high school diploma or GED— a prerequisite for participating in any higher education program. There’s a shortage of teachers because the Florida Department of Corrections pays its teachers $10,000 less than county schools, Brandes told Florida Politics

State senators in Kentucky have introduced a bill that would remove a ban that prevents currently incarcerated high school graduates from receiving some state scholarships. The bill also deletes a requirement from the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship (KEES)—the state’s merit-aid program—that currently makes all people with felony convictions ineligible.

In the wake of a February lockdown across all 122 federal prisons due to a gang fight in Texas, Robert Barton, who is incarcerated at FCI Coleman in Florida, writes about the detrimental effects of frequent prison lockdowns for Politico. “For the uninitiated, a lockdown means everyone in a unit or an entire prison is restricted to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day, without access to education, recreation, or communication with family,” he writes. 

The nonprofit Freedom Reads and architecture firm MASS Design Group have partnered to install 1,000 Freedom Libraries inside American prisons and juvenile detention facilities, Eva Federly reports for Architectural Digest. Freedom Libraries were spaces that provided African Americans access to books during de facto segregation. The first Freedom Library was launched near Boston in November 2021 at MCI-Norfolk, where Malcolm X was incarcerated in the 1950s. 

The Michigan Department of Correction is launching a bachelor’s program for incarcerated students who finished their associate’s degree through the private college Siena Heights University

For Inside Higher Ed, Sara Weissman writes about a new program between University of Southern College and Long Beach City College that creates a pathway to college for 16 to 24 year olds who have been associated with gangs. 

Jobs for the Future announced 22 recipients of Ascendium Education Group’s Ready for Pell initiative, which helps institutions that provide higher education in prisons navigate the upcoming changes to the Pell Grant program for incarcerated students. Two state systems and 20 colleges in 16 states will receive up to $120,000 in funding to expand prison education programs in advance of the restoration of the Pell Grant eligibility in 2023. 

Jy’aire Smith-Pennick writes about his transformation from gangster to geek while in prison for the Marshall Project. “I spent my first couple of years in prison learning how to be a better drug dealer,” he writes. “Eventually, incarceration forced me to stand still and look at my life more objectively.”

For our partner the Prison Journalism Project, Bryan Noonan, who is incarcerated in Michigan, writes about the anticlimatic end to his five-year journey through higher education.

Let’s connect

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 and juvenile lifers who have been shut out of education programs because of the length of their sentence.

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. 

— Charlotte

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