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

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

Fresh starts and forgiveness

We start with several news developments this week:

  • More on student loan relief for incarcerated borrowers
  • Big expansion of the number of Second Chance Pell sites
  • Some demographic data on who exactly used Second Chance Pell during the first five years of the program.

As I reported a few weeks ago, the Education Department is launching a “fresh start” for student loan borrowers in default, including those who are incarcerated. Student loan default has been one of the biggest barriers to participation in Second Chance Pell programs, with the current process to bring loans into good standing being difficult – and in some cases nearly impossible – from behind prison walls. While folks on the outside can pick up the phone or log onto their online account, incarcerated borrowers don’t have that luxury. 

The fresh start will bring all eligible defaulted loans into good standing. All borrowers, including those in prison, will have: the default record removed from their credit history, their eligibility for federal student aid restored, and loan collection efforts stopped. 

I worked with incarcerated journalist Ryan Moser on the story. Ryan talked to men at Everglades Correctional Institution in Miami who had faced challenges applying to Miami Dade College’s Pell program because of outstanding student debt. Ryan himself stands to benefit from the “fresh start” announced last month, especially as he looks forward to getting out of prison later this year after serving an 8-year sentence. 

Ryan wasn’t able to enroll in two different Second Chance Pell programs in Florida due to a $5000 loan balance. “Although I was excluded during my sentence, learning that I can get some relief of college debt when I go home this year renews my interest in returning to school,” says Ryan, who is thinking about journalism school. 

While the details have yet to be announced, incarcerated borrowers may also benefit from possible wide-scale loan forgiveness through executive action being considered by the Biden administration. One of the current plans being floated is forgiving at least $10,000 for borrowers who make less than $125,000. 

Any forgiveness may be subject to income limitations and there will likely be legal challenges about whether the president has the legal authority to cancel student loan debt. There is also speculation that Biden will extend the moratorium on student loan payments from August 31, 2022 at least one more time to allow more time to implement any possible forgiveness programs. 

At the end of April, the Education Department also announced the addition of 73 new Second Chance Pell sites, bringing the total of participating colleges and universities to approximately 200.

President Barack Obama announced the Second Chance Pell program in 2015 as the first step toward restoring Pell Grants for incarcerated students since they’d been eliminated in the 1994 crime bill. In 2020, Congress lifted the 26-year ban, with full reinstatement of the Pell funding for incarcerated students currently slated for July 2023. 

Forty-two states and the District of Columbia had Second Chance Pell sites prior to the most recent expansion, which represents the third cohort of colleges. New programs were launched in Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Dakota, and Wyoming, along with Puerto Rico, the first U.S. territory to have a Second Chance site. Now all but two states – Alaska and North Dakota – have Second Chance programs.

The vast majority of selected schools are public two- and public four-year institutions. Twenty-four of the newly selected educational institutions are historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions. Selected schools may begin accessing Pell Grants as early as July 1, 2022.

In addition to the new Pell sites, the White House also announced a $145 million investment to fund a collaboration between the Justice and Labor Departments focused on job skills training and reentry programs for federal prisoners. President Biden also used his clemency powers for the first time, granting pardons to three people and commuting the sentences of 75 people, all of whom have made efforts to rehabilitate themselves through educational and vocational training and drug treatment. 

Who participates in Second Chance Pell?

A new report from the Vera Institute reviewed the first five years of Second Chance Pell from 2016 to 2021. Over that period, around 28,000 students have enrolled in higher education through the initiative. Since 2016, more than 9,000 students have earned credentials. While the number of students receiving bachelor’s degrees has increased each year, the vast majority of programs offer associate’s degrees or certificates.

The expansion of the Second Chance Pell program, which has since its inception been billed as “an experiment”, is to “allow for opportunities to study the best practices for implementing the reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students,” according to the Education Department. But systematic data on outcomes has thus far been limited, so this new Vera report on who is participating in Second Chance Pell, what credentials they are earning, and where they are studying provides an important early look. 

The report looked at the race and ethnicity of Second Chance Pell participants compared to the U.S. prison population, based on data from the Department of Justice:

  • White participants are overrepresented, making up 43 percent of Second Chance Pell students compared to 30 percent of the prison population. 
  • Approximately 8 percent of Second Chance Pell students are Hispanic/Latinx compared to 23 percent of the prison population. While they were the group most underrepresented in enrollment, Hispanic/Latinx students earned credentials at nearly twice their enrollment rate.
  • Twenty-nine percent of Second Chance Pell students are Black compared to 33 percent of the prison population.

The report also broke down participants by gender:

  • Eighty-five percent of Second Chance Pell students are people housed in facilities designated for men, compared to 93 percent of the overall prison population. 
  • Approximately 15 percent of Second Chance Pell students are in facilities designated for women, compared to 7 percent of the prison population. Although they are enrolling and participating at twice the rate as their presence in the prison population, women disproportionately earned fewer credentials compared to men.

The majority of Second Chance programs are taught in state prisons. Nine colleges are teaching in federal prisons, with at least two more planning to teach in federal prisons in the recently announced Second Chance Pell expansion. For 2020–2021, the states with the most programs were New York (13), Texas (9), Kansas (8), California (6), and Maryland (6), while Texas, Ohio, Arizona, Georgia, and Missouri had the most students.

A mother’s education

Dakota Shananaquet, a member of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, is an incarcerated student at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Michigan. After earning three associate’s degrees from Jackson College in 2019, she is now enrolled in the prison’s food technology program. Shananaquet, 47, has been incarcerated since 2013 and has a release date of May 2023. Here she shares her story.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Dakota Shananaquet

I messed up college, like four or five times, out in the world. I would get my financial aid money and then I would blow it, not taking classes seriously. Every time I was on academic probation, I came up with stellar grades and earned a 4.0. I kept repeating this vicious, self-destructive cycle. My aunt would always say, ‘Oh, my God, she’s such a smart girl, but she makes dumb decisions.’ 

And that just killed my dream of any college. So when I got to prison, and they said that we had to fill out the FAFSA form, I thought I was going to get denied. Then I thought about my mom, who passed away in 2008. And she would always say, ‘What’s the worst they can say? No.’ So I filled out the application anyway, and sent it in. And then I was surprised that I got approved. 

Once Jackson College gave me an opportunity for the Second Chance Pell program, I fasted for four days and made a promise to the Creator that I would take full advantage of this program. And I’ve pretty much been on the dean’s list ever since I started college again. I retook a lot of the classes that I got low grades in out in the world, so that I could bring my GPA up. So today, my GPA is 3.98.

During my time in the college program, I got a job as a GED tutor. I maintained a high GPA and was inducted into the Phi Theta Kappa honor society in 2018. When I received my certificate, I said, ‘Wow! First I was indicted and now I’m getting inducted! God is good!’ and we all fell out laughing! 

In April 2019, my daughter Andrea died. Even though I had an excellent record, the warden denied my request to go to her funeral because he said it was “short notice.” This should have brought me to my knees, but it only brought me closer to the Creator and my cultural teachings. Two months later, I graduated with three associate degrees with high honors and brought a picture of Andrea with me in my medicine bag to honor her.

Then, because I have the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver, I got to continue on and take other classes that Jackson College had to offer. A lot of the credits are transferable, so when we got a packet from Eastern Michigan University, I started tallying up what I need towards a bachelor’s degree in business. I was only 25 credits away. Two semesters, and I’d have my bachelor’s degree! It just blew me away. I was just happy to get an associate’s degree but now I have a drive to get my master’s degree. 

One thing I think that needs to be improved is eligibility for the college program. To participate, you have to have a sentence between 30 months and eight years. There are a lot of people in here that have over eight years left. And there’s far too few role models. If you educate those ladies, they could be role models to the younger ones that are coming in.

When I started college in prison, it just set the tone at home, because two of my children were in high school at the time. So once I started being on the dean’s list, they started taking their high school academic endeavors seriously. And they were on the honor roll at their schools. My son graduated last year, and then my daughter graduates this year. Now it’s just getting everybody through college and setting an example for my granddaughter, who just turned 1 in December. 

News & views

The 19th reported on gender disparities in education programs in men’s and women’s prisons in Texas. While incarcerated men can earn master’s degrees, the highest degree women in Texas prisons can obtain is a bachelor’s degrees, wrote Nadra Nittle

Earlier this week, Goucher College held what is believed to be the first commencement to confer bachelor’s degrees inside a Maryland prison in at least 25 years, the Washington Post reported.  

Taylor Swaak explored the double edged sword of technology in prison education programs for The Chronicle of Higher Education. “When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down in-person classes, many college prison-education programs were forced to rely on companies that sell technology products to prisons,” Swaak wrote. “Now, as program leaders look to the future, they’re reimagining the role tech will play in a space that is uniquely restricted, and where some for-profit offerings have developed dubious reputations.”

Read Shani Shay’s powerful essay for the Prison Journalism Project on her personal story as someone “whose very existence challenges assumptions about who can go to Harvard and what someone with early life trauma and incarceration can accomplish.”

Events & calls for proposals

Federal Student Aid will be holding a webinar on the most recent guidance related to the elimination of the ban on incarcerated students receiving Pell Grants. The webinar will be offered May 26 from 1–2:30 p.m. EST. Find more information and the webinar link here

The Alliance for Higher Education in Prison is accepting session proposals for the 2022 National Conference on Higher Education in Prison until May 23. The conference theme is What’s Next? Higher Education in Prison and Its Future(s). Find out more information on topics and how to submit proposals here

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 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.