Illustration: Daniel Longan for Open Campus

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 this newsletter here.

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

An educator’s guide to the American prison

What should educators know before walking into a prison? The landscape may look vaguely familiar, Nick Hacheney and Tomas Keen write, but don’t be fooled. There’s a lot outsiders can’t see, and need to understand.

As prison education programs are poised to expand, the two incarcerated writers offer a guide for working with students like them in this strange land. (Also a shout out to incarcerated artist Daniel Longan for the illustrations!)

If given the opportunity to teach abroad, say in Papua New Guinea or France, you’d likely head to a bookstore and purchase a guide on the region’s culture. You’d study the history of the place and how significant events shaped the things you were about to see.

But nobody buys a guide before entering a prison.

As prison-based education programs slowly return, many newly inspired educators are unknowingly about to walk into a foreign land. Few will get a guide on what being in prison is really like. And even if they do take the time to scour the growing tome of prison-centered writing, they’ll find little has been said about the ways in which outsiders should approach this place.

This guide aims to fix that.

Arriving at the prison gates, you’ll find what you first expected: high walls, glistening razor wire, imposing towers with armed guards. Stepping inside you’ll see polished “Programming Center” signs adorning buildings with neatly configured tables and chairs, inspirational quotes, and hastily-scrawled-upon white boards. It may seem for a moment very reminiscent of any other site of academia.

Because the setting is what you expected, the people look familiar, and the language is one you can understand, you might assume you know this culture. You couldn’t be more wrong.

Like all tourist traps, you’re experiencing what prison administrators want you to. You’re not seeing the cramped and dirty living units, you’re not hearing the nonstop shrieking of amplified loudspeakers, you’re not feeling the soul-twisting desperation to be somewhere, anywhere, other than this place. Despite a keen eye and keyed up senses, you’re not experiencing what this place really is.

You’ve undoubtedly come intending to do some good. Yet that requires understanding something of the place you are in and the people you are with. Here are five cultural foundations that you should know about:

The population

Almost all prisoners have experienced trauma – there are disproportionate numbers of people of color who have been subjected to racist systems, victims of violence, graduates of the foster-care system, people suffering from mental illness, and people who turned to substances to suppress pain. In no other place will you find these specific demographics in these sizable concentrations.


Prisons create a culture that responds to power as a reflex, like a flinch. Prisoners understand that anyone who has power over them has the ability to hurt them – enemy and friend alike. The natural reaction is to distance yourself as far as possible: what you don’t have cannot be taken from you, what you don’t love cannot break your heart.


Prisoners have trust issues. We have experienced extreme oppression from our custodians, been betrayed by our fellow captives, and been abandoned by some of our advocates. This leads to a truncated ability to give and receive trust, making it a measured commodity offered and taken only in the quantity we can afford.


The prison environment is one shockingly scarce in choices. We don’t choose where we live or who we live with, what time we will wake up, eat our meals, or even use the toilet. The choices that are left to us are guarded fiercely.


Education programs become baby carrots that barely grow in the shadow of monstrous sticks. An ever-present threat of having valuable things taken away spawns toxic selfishness and narcissism. In short, prisons are mean spaces with inadequate resources and a culture of survival. 

It’s wrong to walk into prison and think that terms like equity, fairness, and anti-discrimination are going to mean the same thing here that they do outside. Prison educators need to identify more closely with Harriet Tubman than John Harvard. You need to read the words of Michelle Alexander and look for modern day underground railroads.

Illustration: Daniel Longan for Open Campus

Travel tips

1. Leave your culture and assumptions at the door.

2. Take the time to learn this culture. Sit with prisoners who live here and are doing the work day in and day out. 

3. Understand that when you come to a visiting room or a prison classroom you are in a tourist trap. You will hear stories and have a better idea than most, but you will not see us in our cages or experience the violence and madness that are part of our daily lives.

4. Give up on the idea that your set of values will fix this place.

5. Become an agent of empowerment.

6. Don’t spread yourself so thin that you end up helping no one by trying to help everyone.

7. Say no to the temptation to take risks that will endanger the whole community and deprive them of resources. Something that feels as innocent as bringing in a magazine or pictures of your vacation can get a program shut down.

8. An educator should never become a prison guard. A student comes into class frazzled and aggressive. But what you might not know is that he was stopped on the way to class and harassed by an officer for not having his shirt tucked in. Give your students the benefit of the doubt. 

9. Don’t get sidetracked by the loudest or most disenfranchised or most manipulative.

10. Take a marathoner’s approach. Commit to long-term solutions that are sustainable instead of short-term fixes that make you feel good.

11. Understand that if you do not take care of yourself, you will become another advocate who did their prison tour and left.

12. Accept the fact that prison has a pretty messed up culture filled with broken people.

Prison education is hard work. But it matters in ways that few other things can compare. It empowers transformation, prevents future victimization, and breaks cycles of incarceration, poverty, abuse, and disenfranchisement. It’s rarely fun and only sometimes rewarding – but it’s absolutely vital.

Don’t forget to send us a postcard!

Nick Hacheney is incarcerated at the Washington Corrections Center and is a longtime advocate for environmental and educational programs in prison. He has been previously published in The Economist’s 1843 Magazine, BioCyle, and Filter and presented a TedX talk on the environmental program he started in prison. 

Tomas Keen is a writer from Washington State, where he’s been incarcerated since 2010. His work prioritizes issues of social justice and legal reform and has been published in The Crime Report, The Appeal, Inquest, and The Economist’s 1843 Magazine. Read his first essay for Open Campus here

Daniel Longan is serving a 40-year sentence in Washington State. His art has been featured in the LeMay Car Museum in Tacoma and in a video for JSTOR Access in Prison. You can follow him on Twitter at @DanLonganArt.

$10-20K in student loan forgiveness

Yesterday, the big news we’ve all been waiting for became official. President Biden announced an executive order that will grant $10,000 in student loan forgiveness for borrowers who make less than $125,000, and up to $20,000 for borrowers who were Pell Grant recipients

This comes on the heels of the first concrete details of the Education Department’s “fresh start” initiative, first announced in April, to bring defaulted loans into good standing. The Washington Post first broke the story, with Danielle Douglas-Gabriel reporting that 7.5 million borrowers will benefit from the program.

Here’s the crux: people will have one year from the end of the student-loan payment pause — now set to expire December 31 — to make payment arrangements. Notably this will restore eligibility for Pell Grants, currently a key barrier to participation in prison ed programs. 

We dove into this issue in this story I co-reported with incarcerated writer Ryan Moser. It’s an important fix ahead of full Pell rollout next year. 

The “fresh start,” combined with the anticipated $10K forgiveness announced on Wednesday, is good news for people who want to continue their education inside or outside of prison. 

Almost one-third of borrowers have debt but no degree, according to the Education Department, and about 16 percent of borrowers are in default. Some of these people are in prison. 

Borrowers who are in default can bring their loans into good standing and potentially qualify for forgiveness. And those who have debt but no degree will gain access to federal financial aid again so they can finish college.

Defaulted borrowers are currently not eligible for Pell Grants or other federal aid, so for students who stopped out and didn’t finish their degrees — that one-third of student loan borrowers — and now want to go back to school, loan forgiveness plus “fresh start” is a game changer.

What’s missing? There are scant details on how the Education Department will help incarcerated borrowers overcome logistical and communication barriers such as no internet access, limited phone calls, and an inability to call 1-800 numbers. The Education Department had provided no further information at the time of publishing. 

Reach out if you are a formerly incarcerated student or a prison educator affected by this. How will the combination of fresh start + loan forgiveness impact you or your prison ed program? Send me a note.

News & views

Ithaka S+R has launched a new survey on technology access in higher education in prison programs. The data gathered in this survey will be aggregated at the state level and made publicly available in a report highlighting key findings. This survey will remain open for responses until September 30. If you direct or coordinate a higher education in prison program and participate, please email for more information.

If you’re looking for research resources in prison, JSTOR thumb drives with abstracts are now available. If your higher education program, prison, detainment center, or jail would like the offline JSTOR index, you can request one here. (For more information on JSTOR access in prisons, see this issue of College Inside.)

NPR visited the laboratory of Dr. Stanley Andrisse, a scientist at Howard University. Around the country, historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, are investing in education for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people. Because of their history, HBCUs are well-positioned to help incarcerated students, Sequoia Carrillo reports. 

Register for the virtual 2022 Rise Up Conference on higher education and prison on September 8-9. The two-day conference is designed and produced by directly impacted people. Two graduate students we’ve written about, Brandon Brown and Johnny Pippins, have teamed up to do a session on higher education and clemency on Thursday, Sept. 8th, 1:00-1:20 pm EST.

Let’s connect

I will be at the Correctional Education Association national conference in Tampa, Fl. next week, Aug 29-31, so look me up if you’re there too!

Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. You can always reach me at on JPay/Securus/Connect Network/Corrlinks or on Twitter at @szarlotka. If you are a prison educator or a librarian interested in receiving print copies of College Inside, please reach out.

To reach me via snail mail, you can write to: Open Campus, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.

— Charlotte

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