Letters to College Inside. Maddison Hwang/Open Campus

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.

In case you missed it:

A normal conversation in an abnormal setting

The Washington Corrections Center, a men’s prison in Shelton, Wash. Charlotte West/Open Campus

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my car outside of the Washington Corrections Center, a prison about an hour and 45 minutes southwest of Seattle. I was there to spend a few hours with one of our inside writers, Tomas Keen. 

As I waited for a negative COVID test to get the green light to go inside, I looked at the out-of-place Christmas lights in the guard tower and the remnants of a rare Pacific Northwest snowstorm. It was a surreal moment. 

Eighteen months ago, before I started this job, the situation would have seemed bizarre. Now, it seems strangely normal. In the last year, I’ve learned that people create connections and find joy no matter how dire their circumstances. And reporting on this world, how people navigate it, and how education fits in, matters — which makes my job seem meaningful. 

Tomas was the very first incarcerated writer we published in this newsletter. That day, it was very cool to sit down across the table from a man I’ve gotten to know over the last year via JPay and 20-minute phone calls punctuated by an automated voice reminding us that prison officials might be listening.

We talked about journalism, his attempts to finish his bachelor’s degree, and what he wants to do when he gets out a few years down the road. It was a very normal conversation in a very abnormal setting behind a series of locked doors – one that families of incarcerated people have to deal with on a daily basis. 

Learning to communicate with people in prison

It took me the first few months on the job to figure out the various ways to communicate with people in prison. It’s a complex web of different technology vendors, the U.S. postal service, and messages relayed via friends and family. 

At least half of my phone conversations these days start with the message “this call is being monitored and recorded.” And for some reason, someone calling from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation shows up as a Texas area code. 

People in prison generally don’t have access to the internet nor can they receive phone calls. They can make calls that range anywhere from $.37 to $1.50 for 15 minutes, but the calls can drop without warning and sometimes there are long queues for the phones.

Besides the glitchy prison phone system, there is snail mail and secure messaging systems such as JPay or Viapath (formerly known as Global Tel Link). 

Depending on where someone is incarcerated, they may or may not have access to one of those services. These services are similar to the early email clients of the 1990s, with no ability to add hyperlinks or format text. Some vendors limit the number of characters to 2000, which makes it very frustrating to cut and paste a longform article. 

Some states like Texas and Colorado allow you to send a message that’s printed off and then delivered to the individual, who can then call you or send a letter. 

Several states have also started scanning physical mail through third-party vendors, such as Text Behind or Smart Communications. Officials claim that this is to reduce contraband, but incarcerated people say it’s really a way to increase surveillance. It also takes longer for people to get mail, and removes an important physical connection to loved ones who send cards and children’s drawings. Some state, like Florida, are now delivering the scanned mail electronically and then charging for hard copies.

I’ve gotten used to having copies of the newsletters rejected by prison mail rooms. Sometimes it’s operator error, like I mistyped someone’s DOC number (people become numbers, not names), but other times it gets sent back because someone has been transferred or some other mysterious violation of a DOC mail rule. My favorite rejections are when there’s a note that someone has been released.

Working with incarcerated writers

Marcus Henderson, the editor-in-chief of the San Quentin News, which occasionally publishes content from College Inside. Charlotte West/Open Campus

One of the highlights of the past year was having the opportunity to collaborate with incarcerated writers like Tomas. We published a number of essays detailing various aspects of higher education in prison, such as this essay about the need for college programs for young adults in prison by Khalil A. Scott. We also asked Rahsaan “New York” Thomas to interview Luis “Suave” Gonzalez about the role of college when you think you’re never getting out

And I had the opportunity to co-report stories such as this one on student loan default that I wrote with Ryan Moser (who is scheduled to go home next week!). While incarcerated writers don’t have many of the resources that those of us on the outside take for granted, they do have access to sources inside. Ryan was able to get interviews with students who faced difficulties enrolling in college because of student loan debt from before they were incarcerated. 

We’ve also been able to share our content with prison publications such as the San Quentin News, which is produced at San Quentin and distributed across the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. When I visited the San Quentin media lab at the end of October, it was cool to see an article from College Inside laid out for one of their upcoming issues. 

Working with inside writers requires flexibility and time, but it’s immensely rewarding. We’ve transcribed handwritten stories, had paragraphs dictated over the phone, and made edits one message at a time. 

Learning about the criminal justice system

Study hall for Mount Tamalpais College at San Quentin State Prison in the Bay area. Charlotte West/Open Campus

I like to say that I’m an education journalist covering prisons. While I had previously done some reporting on the juvenile justice system, courts, crime, and the criminal justice system were new to me. I have had a steep learning curve on issues where criminal justice intersects with education, such as in this story about Johnny Pippins’ quest for commutation in order to start his PhD. (In my research for that story, I learned more than I ever wanted to know about Illinois’ opaque clemency process).

Here are six specific things I’ve learned this year:

  • Academic bureaucracy can rival that of prison bureaucracy, as Keramet Reiter, criminology professor at University of California, Irvine, put it during a session at the National Conference for Higher Education in Prison. Sometimes the obstacles to prison education sit in higher education institutions, not correctional agencies. 
  • Despite the lack of formal education programs in many places, people in prisons are extremely creative and find ways to educate themselves. Glen Conley, who is incarcerated in Mississippi, for example, began working with a professor at Binghamton University to do research on civil rights activist Anne Moody. 
  • While many states exclude people with long sentences from education, lifers play an important role in both encouraging others to go to school and setting the culture of the prison. Many of the stories people have shared about their educational journey in prison began with an old timer cajoling a reluctant kid into signing up for a GED program. Some people have told me that the only programs being offered at all in some places are taught by lifers.
  • Prison education can be interrupted for all sorts of reasons, ranging from a prison closing to someone being transferred to another facility. There are collateral consequences of interrupted education that go far beyond not finishing a degree, including loss of good time credits and even decisions about parole. 
  • There’s a great hunger for education inside. Every week, I get letters from people inside hoping that Pell Grant restoration next year will mean that college is coming to their prison. While the expansion of federal financial aid in 2023 will mean increased access, it’s still unclear whether the supply will meet the demand. State correctional systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons are currently working out the details about the process for colleges to apply to become an approved prison education program and how they will be selected. 

Reaching inside and out

When I started this newsletter a year ago, I hand addressed envelopes to a dozen people inside so they could get the issues along with the hundreds of digital subscribers on the outside. That quickly became unsustainable as the newsletter grew, first by me reaching out to people who were highlighted in local publications and then by word-of-mouth. 

A year later, in addition to our outside audience of 800 policymakers, educators, and advocates, we’re now sending College Inside to around 800 individuals in prisons across the country as well as to a number of libraries and prison education programs. 

As I started reporting on this beat, I quickly realized that there was a dearth of information about higher education options in prison. People have heard rumors about Pell Grants coming back, but have no information about how they will actually work. Many incarcerated people could benefit from President Biden’s student loan relief and new programs to bring defaulted loans back into good standing, but don’t have the ability to call 1-800 numbers or check online with their loan servicers. 

We’ve tried to help close this information gap through College Inside and we hope to reach even more people in 2023. Please share this newsletter with colleagues, family, and friends. They can use this form to sign up to get the newsletter in their inbox. For people inside interested in a print copy, you can sign them up here. We also publish the PDFs on our website.

As a nonprofit news organization, we rely on grants and donations to keep doing this kind of in-depth reporting. From now until December 31, any single or recurring monthly contribution you make, up to $1,000, will be doubled by NewsMatch, a national campaign to support nonprofit newsrooms like Open Campus. You can donate here.

Happy holidays and I look forward to hearing from you in 2023!

– Charlotte West

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