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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. Sign up for a copy of this newsletter here.

Prison programs don’t quench the thirst for higher education

Over the last month, I’ve been working with Khalil A. Scott, who is incarcerated at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina, on an essay about the lack of college programming in the young adult unit where he works as a mentor. He shared the story of 26-year-old Quantae Priest, who recently transferred from Lee to another prison where he could take part in a college program offered by Claflin University, a historically Black college located in Orangeburg, S.C. 

For a chance to go to college, Quantae gave up living in a housing unit where he felt safe, was surrounded by like minded peers and had access to rehabilitative programming. He traded a single cell with a desk, chair and bookshelves for a noisy, crowded dorm with rickety bunk beds and a cellie. (“I miss my bookshelf because I love all my books,” he recently told me.)

I was drawn to Quantae’s story because it demonstrates the hard choices that people often have to make in order to gain a higher education in prison. The theme of trade-offs has come up often in the conversations I’ve been having. Do you transfer to a prison on the opposite side of the state away from your family to participate in a college program? Do you delay your petition for resentencing so you can graduate before you get out? Or do you put your education on hold for a better job in the prison?

In the essay, Khalil also makes a case for why young adult units focused on rehabilitation and restorative justice are the ideal setting for college-in-prison programs. Not only is the physical environment more conducive to studying, the mentors in the unit teach classes focused on communication and addressing trauma. Anecdotally, the skills the young men learn can help lay the foundation for success in an academic classroom. 

As I’ve written about before, a growing number of states are recognizing the unique needs of incarcerated young people, who are overrepresented in the prison system. This particularly applies to young Black and Hispanic males. Individuals ages 18 to 24 make up 10 percent of the general population but comprise 21 percent of people admitted into adult prison every year. 

As Khalil notes, the young men in his unit are the same age as traditional college students. They are missing out on a time in life when most people figure out who they are and what they want to do in the future. Research shows that compared with older adults, young adults lack emotional control and are more likely to act impulsively, but they are also more receptive to positive interventions, including higher education. 

Lee and Turbeville Correctional Institution are the two state prisons in South Carolina with dedicated housing units for 18- to 25-year-olds. But they only offer GED instruction to those who want to finish their high school studies and vocational training. For many of the young men that Khalil and the other mentors work with, those limited programs will not quench their thirst for higher education. Twenty seven out of 33 told him they wanted to take college classes.

Other formerly incarcerated people I’ve talked to have said that exposure to college in prison when they were younger was what encouraged them to go back to school when they got out. “Even though I didn’t earn a degree while I was incarcerated, being able to earn those hours put me on a path to go to college,” Andrew Hundley, former juvenile lifer and founder of the Louisiana Parole Project, told me in March. 

Quantae’s story also points to another challenge of prison education, what Columbia University sociologist Sadé Lindsay calls “the prison credential dilemma.” While Quantae has personally benefited from the programs offered in the young adult unit, the certificates and diplomas he’s stacked up may not mean that much on the outside. 

As Quantae put it, “This is a ‘show me world’, right? Well, I got this certificate, this certificate, this certificate. Well, who accredited that? Now, I gotta get a four-year degree that can actually help me when I go home.”

I recently caught up with Quantae about his experience in Claflin’s college program. Since he arrived at the new prison, Quantae has gotten a job as a teacher’s assistant in the education department and has been able to finish a college literature class. 

Quantae Priest with a family member at his GED graduation at Lee Correctional Institution in 2017. Courtesy of Quantae Priest.

He had to drop a second course because he couldn’t access it on his prison-issued tablet, and sometimes he and his classmates had to miss class because there weren’t enough correctional staff to escort them to the education building.

Now, instead of sitting at his desk, he has to lay on his bunk or contend with the noisy common room to study. While his cellmate is also in the college program, most of his classmates are scattered across multiple housing units instead of living together where they can create a sense of community. 

I asked Quantae whether leaving the young adult unit was worth it. His reviews are mixed; he’s grateful for the opportunity to pursue higher education, but frustrated he had to move to a less-than-ideal environment to do it. 

At Lee, “I could have done everything that I’m doing now way more efficiently,” he says. 

But despite the challenges, Quantae remains optimistic. With a maximum release date of 2028, he intends to have a bachelor’s in hand before he goes home. “This higher education is my redemption process,” he says. “So, when I get out I’m more equipped to do things to address some of the harm that I caused and redeem myself to my family, my community and the world at large.”

“Sometimes when you have great things that you want to accomplish, you got to make great sacrifices,” he adds. “And ultimately, I’m able to actually get a degree in prison. I think that’s worth it, no matter what.”

Read the essay 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 of the physical environment for teaching and learning in prison

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.