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A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. By Charlotte West.

Welcome to College Inside, a newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. I’m Charlotte West, a national reporter for Open Campus.

A shot in the arm

The biggest headlines about prison education this month focused on the restoration of New York’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), a need-based state financial aid program, for incarcerated students. In April, New York became the second state to repeal a state-wide ban for financial aid for people in prison. New Jersey put a similar law into effect in 2020.

The move, along with the infusion of federal Pell dollars coming next year, will be a shot in the arm for prison education in New York, buoying existing programs with consistent funding and also creating opportunities for new programs, experts said.

New York’s move might also be a harbinger of things to come. “It is very much a milestone in the movement in state financial aid programs towards opening up and doing so ahead of Pell,” said Bradley Custer, senior policy analyst for higher education at the Center for American Progress

In the wake of the crime bill that eliminated federal financial aid for people in prison, New York banned state financial aid for people in prison in 1995. As a result of the federal and state bans, New York went from having over 70 college-in-prison programs to four, said Dyjuan Tatro, senior government affairs officer for the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a private prison education program focused on liberal arts. 

It was a pattern that was repeated across the country. As of 2019, only 17 states and the District of Columbia had no legal or policy barriers prohibiting incarcerated students from applying for state financial aid, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. 

Following the ban in New York, nonprofit organizations such as BPI and Hudson Link, which both started operation in the late 1990s, stepped in to fill the gap in higher education in prison. But as private programs operating in partnership with colleges, they have relied on private funding – and constant fundraising – in the absence of state support. 

BPI currently operates in six prisons in New York and enrolls over 300 students. “Every year, we are in a precarious position,” Tatro said. “If we don’t have a steady public source to support education for people in prison at the scale that is mass incarceration in this country, our work is never going to be able to meet the demand or be sustainable.”

Tatro said that BPI will still need to fundraise above and beyond what is covered by grants, but the immediate availability of TAP and the restoration of Pell Grants for people in prison in 2023 will be a “shot in the arm” for existing prison education programs in New York. “This money coming back online first and foremost is going to add resources to a lot of programs that have been struggling to do this work.”

For Hudson Link, “the increased investment from the federal and state government allows us to stretch our privately raised funds to further build out program quality and a holistic approach to college-in-prison,” said Sean Pica, executive director. While college partners provide the academics, organizations like Hudson Link also offer services such as pre-college and college readiness courses, computer labs, tutoring, and reentry services. 

Custer also anticipates the combination of TAP and Pell creating opportunities for new programs in New York. He noted that the recent changes in New York not only create access to TAP, but also all other state financial aid programs. 

In theory, incarcerated students in New York will have access to the same state financial aid as any other state resident, but in practice, they will likely be limited by what programs are available at their particular facility. As of Spring 2021, more than 30 of New York’s 50 state prisons (six of which were closed in late 2021) offer at least an associate’s degree, according to the New York Consortium for Higher Education in Prison. 

Pica said he hopes restoring TAP will expand the number of prisons offering face-to-face college programming, particularly in rural communities that are harder to reach and tend to have less access to private funding. (Read about Pica’s own experience with the elimination of Pell Grants for prisoners in 1994). 

Tatro said that TAP is key to restoring educational equity to people who were excluded from educational opportunities even before they went to prison. “Our students at BPI, by and large, grew up in the roughest neighborhoods and went to the poorest schools,” he said. “These are the individuals who this society should be giving the greatest access to education. And in New York, up until last week, it was the complete opposite.”

Pell is not a panacea

Two recent reports on Pell Grants for prisoners highlight what we need to know before full Pell reinstatement happens in July 2023. 

Earlier this month, the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison published Beyond Pell Restoration: Addressing Persistent Funding Challenges in Prison Higher Education Toward Racial and Economic Justice. The researchers looked at the extent to which Pell addresses funding challenges for college-in-prison programs and what implications Pell funding has for racial and socioeconomic justice. 

“The return of Pell to prisons without additional investment is likely to replicate the racial and economic inequities that are pervasive throughout higher education,” the report noted. 

The report highlights three major challenges for prison education programs:

  1. Pell reinstatement does not currently address difficulties with the FAFSA application and award processes, including student loan default and difficulties accessing tax information.
  2. Higher education in prison programs will play a key role in Pell restoration, but they do not work alone. Administrators, correctional leaders, policy makers, and government officials must work to disrupt and repair the existing racial and economic inequalities that permeate higher education. 
  3. Student support services that assist in retention, persistence, and time-to-degree are scarce in the emerging field of higher education in prison. 

Mary Gould, director of the Alliance and one of the report’s authors, said that Pell by itself is not enough. ​​“We still need to continue to push for state level funding, more federal funding, access to funding through colleges, more access to support for student services, and a continued sense of legitimacy for this work.”

Bradley Custer,  senior policy analyst for higher education at the Center for American Progress, outlined the steps that need to be taken to create Pell-eligible prison education programs in How Colleges and Universities Can Bring Pell Grant-Funded Programs Back to Prisons.

Before Pell Grants can flow once again to students in prisons…colleges, accreditors, corrections agencies, and the U.S. Department of Education have a lot of work to do,” Custer wrote. 

Both new and existing programs have to meet the new Pell Grant requirements, get approval from their institutional accrediting agency, get approval from the entity that oversees the correctional facility where the program will be offered, such as the Federal Bureau of Prisons or a state corrections agency, and get approval from the Education Department.

Custer said  that the final rules for Pell reinstatement won’t be published until November 1, 2022, and there will be a 30-day period for public comment sometime this spring or summer. If the November 1 deadline is missed, full Pell reinstatement could be pushed back until Spring or Summer 2024. 

Both reports stress the importance for colleges to start building up support, including additional funding and dedicated staff, for college-in-prison programs now. “This is a really important year to be thinking about building infrastructure and what is needed to be sustainable while continuing to center questions of equity, access, and quality for students,” Gould said. 

Custer stressed that colleges and universities should start consulting with accrediting agencies and oversight entities now. “As each party is dependent on the cooperation of the others to gain the Education Department’s approval, building these relationships is critical for the success of PEPs and ensuring that an affordable, high-quality college education will finally be in reach of incarcerated students,” he wrote. 

News & views

Unsplash/Allef Vinicius

The Minnesota Department of Corrections has recently posted a job advertisement for an unusual position: tattoo supervisor. The tattoo artist, based at Stillwater Correctional Facility, would oversee the establishment of one or more tattoo studios, reported Alex Derosier for the Duluth News Tribune. The goal of the program is to both reduce transmissions of diseases such as hepatitis C and to educate people in prison as tattoo artists. 

For NPR, Carrie Johnson reported that the Justice Department is moving to reduce racial disparities in a tool it uses to assess which people are at risk of returning to crime. The department plans to make tweaks to its risk assessment algorithm that would significantly increase the number of Black and Hispanic men in federal prison who are eligible to take educational classes that could lead to an earlier release. But the tool continues to overestimate the number of Black women who will engage in recidivism, compared to white women in prison, Johnson wrote. 

Nuria Sheehan outlines the fits and starts of prison education since the elimination of Pell Grants for prisoners in 1994 in a comprehensive piece for Truthout. She explores the tensions between the promise of expanded access through technology and increased funding with concerns about educational quality and who might be left behind. “While advocates of prison education welcome expanding opportunities through the Pell Grant, many veteran prison educators are worried about how this moment will define the future of prison education,” Sheehan wrote. “Programs unprepared to deal with carceral settings could reinforce the dehumanizing aspects of prison.” 

In case you missed it

Nicolas Brooks’ essay, ​I wonder about comeback stories. Danny’s might be one,” profiling his friend’s bumpy journey to college over nine years and nine prisons was co-published by the Prison Journalism Project

My story on the prison credential dilemma” was picked up by The Crime Report and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange featured my interview with juvenile-lifer-turned-nonprofit-founder Andrew Hundley of the Louisiana Parole Project. 

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 how prison education programs are accommodating students with disabilities and information on English as a Second Language programs in prisons. I’m also looking to find out more about the challenges and opportunities of conducting academic research in prisons. 

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.