A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. Written by Open Campus national reporter Charlotte West.
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A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. By Charlotte West.
Short on time? Here are the highlights:
- In this first-person essay, Ryan Moser describes what it’s been like watching his son’s college journey unfold from afar.
- Federal Student Aid has published resources on prison education programs, including the 2023-2024 FAFSA for incarcerated students.
- Read Adriana Martinez-Smiley’s investigation into the impact of prison transfers and other disruptions on incarcerated students in Illinois for Injustice Watch.
- ICYMI: Read my Q&A with Bill Keller, founding editor of The Marshall Project, on his new book, What’s Prison For?
Apprenticeships aren’t what they used to be
Long a pathway into the trades, apprenticeships now are preparing Americans for jobs in fields from healthcare to tech. Some organizations see apprenticeships as a path to diversifying industries and are open to recruiting formerly incarcerated or justice-involved workers. Our colleagues at Work Shift have produced a free, downloadable guide, Understanding New Collar Apprenticeships, that takes a look at this evolving landscape.
Parenting a college student from prison
In this first-person essay, Ryan Moser, who is incarcerated in Florida, describes what it’s been like watching his son’s college journey unfold from afar. (We’re using his son’s first initial to protect his privacy.)
When D was a little boy of maybe five or six, he used to sit on my lap and I’d read to him, or quiz him on his homework.
As D grew older, his mother and I divorced and I struggled with drug addiction, eventually landing in prison. I love my son and wanted to be a part of his life while I was incarcerated, but parenting from behind bars is like an air traffic controller trying to fly a plane from the ground — you can relay information, but you miss the hands-on experience that matters most.
When D graduated high school with honors, I urged him to go to college, knowing the advantages of having a degree. I wrote long letters pressing him to attend a university and sharing my regrets of not continuing school.
In conversations with my parents, I pleaded with them to push D to commit to school, and he eventually did by earning a soccer scholarship to a junior college. That became one of my proudest moments and a colossal relief, knowing that my progeny now was less likely to follow in my footsteps.
There are 2.7 million children that have a parent serving time in prison or jail on any given day. Studies show that children with an incarcerated parent are less likely to graduate high school and go to college than their peers, a continuation of generational failure that hurts everyone involved. However, with my son attending school his chances of succumbing to this fate narrowed. I became a college parent in absentia.
++Read Ryan’s full essay here.
Student loan cancellation lawsuits, applications
There have been two different federal court orders blocking the Biden administration’s student loan cancellation program in the last week. As of Nov. 10, the Education Department stopped accepting cancellation applications as a result. The department will hold the 26 million applications from borrowers that have already been accepted. The administration said it processed 16 million applications and will be ready to cancel those debts if and when the orders are lifted. And, the administration is trying to overturn the orders through appeal.
The court orders do not affect the “fresh start” initiative to help bring defaulted student loans into good standing.
Earlier this month, the Education Department also published a PDF form for student loan debt relief that requests an email address and phone number and does not include a spot for a physical mailing address. Guidance from experts working in the prison higher education is that people can write their mailing address on the form. If someone doesn’t have an email or phone, they can leave those blank. “Discussions are underway about how to modify the form to work for people who will be completing a hard copy version,” Margaret diZerega, director of the Unlocking Potential initiative at the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, said on LinkedIn.
Federal Student Aid confirmed they will retain paper applications they receive in the mail but cannot process them, according to Bradley Custer, policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, who attended a closed briefing where Education Department officials described the process.
++We sent out a guide for incarcerated borrowers with instructions on how to seek cancellation with the print edition of College Inside. The guide is authored by Bradley Custer and Stacy Burnett with contributions from me. Please note that the guide does not reflect the current court orders and notes that the Education Department is still accepting applications, which was accurate when it was published on Nov 7. The instructions to complete the cancellation application will be the same if the court orders are lifted upon appeal.
++Related coverage: For Diverse Education, Jon Edelman writes about the challenges that incarcerated borrowers face in accessing information about student loan forgiveness.
Transfers, lockdowns, and other disruptions
For Injustice Watch, Adriana Martinez-Smiley, a senior journalism major at Northwestern University, investigated the impact of prison transfers and other disruptions on incarcerated students in Illinois.
As the closest prison to Chicago, Stateville has by far the most college programming of all Illinois prisons, with four colleges serving about 300 students a year. From May 2021 to October 2022, prison officials transferred nearly 400 people out of Stateville’s general population. The recent transfers, along with staffing shortages and frequent lockdowns, have been especially disruptive to postsecondary programming,
At least 60 of the transfers were enrolled in college courses through the the Prison and Neighborhood Arts/Education Project, or PNAP, which offers a degree program through Northeastern Illinois University. That’s about a third of PNAP’s total enrollment, Martinez-Smiley writes. Two other universities did not respond to inquiries about how many students they’ve lost.
Martinez-Smiley previously interned with PNAP, where she had the chance to see some of the challenges that education institutions face when navigating correctional agencies. She shared more about her work via email.
“These difficulties aren’t specific to PNAP’s program,” she wrote. “More importantly, the largest stakeholders in all of this — the students — are being displaced…I wanted to focus on the experience of someone that was actually transferred from the facility at a time they didn’t expect, and how that affected them.”
She wanted to write about the difficulties faced by programs and students in Illinois because so much coverage of prison education focuses on success stories. “I didn’t find anything besides stories uplifting these programs — which is important — but also not showing the full picture,” she said.
Martinez-Smiley points to Devon Terrell, who finished his bachelor’s in 2019 but continued to take noncredit classes through PNAP. Not only did he lose access to higher education when he was transferred, he lost his community.
“While prison education is shown to reduce recidivism and increase employment opportunities for released individuals, I hope that people understand just how meaningful this access is to people inside,” she wrote.
++Read the full story here.
News & views
For JSTOR Daily, Phillip Vance Smith, II writes about how becoming a prison journalist prepared him to enroll in the only bachelor’s program in the North Carolina prison system. As a reporter and editor of Nash News, he learned critical thinking and how to communicate complex information. “For me, education does not serve a long-term purpose of supporting my survival after prison, because I will likely never leave,” he writes.
For the Texas Observer, Michelle Pitcher delves into the uneven access to prison education across Texas, noting the Pell restoration might bring increased opportunities. Currently, 12 community colleges and two universities run higher education programs in 33 Texas state prisons. The other 69 state lockups have no programs at all. As the number of programs expands next year, “one area of particular interest to advocates is accessibility for all incarcerated students. Certain programs and classes are only offered in certain units, so women and prisoners with disabilities or medical conditions can get left out of the system altogether,” Pitcher writes.
As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on grants and donations to keep bringing you news about prison education and sending this newsletter to more than 700 incarcerated readers. This is one of my favorite compliments from our inside readers: “We made multiple copies of your newsletter and they are circulating around the facility even quicker than COVID did.”
Until Dec. 31, NewsMatch will double your new monthly donation 12x or match your one-time gift, up to $1,000. If you would like to help support my work, please donate here.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @szarlotka. To reach me via snail mail, you can write to: Open Campus Media, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.
We know that not everyone has access to email, so if you’d like to have a print copy College Inside sent to an incarcerated friend or family member, you can sign them up here. We also publish the PDFs of our print newsletter on the Open Campus website. There is no cost to subscribe to the print edition of College Inside.
— Charlotte West