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’re short on time:
• Don’t miss the guide I wrote for the Education Writers Association on how to cover prison education programs ahead of Pell Grant restoration for incarcerated students later this year.
• Open Campus is holding an event on Jan. 19 at 1:30 pm eastern exploring what’s ahead for HBCUs in 2023. Sign up here.
• I’ll be doing a workshop for prison educators with the Bard Prison Initiative on “How to Talk to Journalists” on Feb. 24 at 1 pm eastern. You can register here.
• ICYMI: Here are my reflections on a year of covering prison education.
A visit to Inside Wire
“Welcome to Hotlines on Inside Wire Colorado Prison Radio,” Tiffany McCoy says from behind the mic.
“Okay, we’re gonna stop and do that again,” Cynthia Gonzalez interrupts.
Tiffany and Cynthia are both producers at Inside Wire, the first statewide prison radio station in the United States. The station was launched in early 2022 by the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative and the Colorado Department of Corrections.
Now, it gives valuable training and, for some inside, a purpose. That’s particularly true for lifers, who often have limited access to education options inside.
Hotlines is a segment featuring announcements that airs multiple times per day. Amber Pierce sits across from Cynthia and Tiffany as they go through the updates.
After she shares info for a reentry program, she goes off script. She’s getting close to the end of her sentence at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, but she’s still waiting for a release date.
“One of my goals for getting out of prison is getting gainful employment,” she says. “My life can be a lot better if I learn how to prioritize.”
The studio is small, with barely enough room for the three women to crowd around a desk equally crowded with three desk-mounted mic arms, headphones, speakers and a Rodecaster. Black foam soundproofing panels are mounted on the wall behind Cynthia and Tiffany. The women wear baggy green pants, yellow t-shirts and gray sweatshirts with faded patches featuring their last names and DOC numbers.
‘I’ve had to find different roads to grow’
Inside Wire is one of several programs operated by the DU Prison Arts Initiative. It is among several prison radio stations across the country. The Louisiana State Penitentiary has operated KLSP-91.7 FM (known as the “Incarceration Station”), the country’s only FCC-licensed prison radio station since 1986, though earlier iterations of the station existed in the late 1950s. In Texas, men on death row run their own station. There’s even an international prison radio association.
Programs like prison radio stations have become an important outlet for giving people both access to meaningful professional training and opportunities for creative expression.
For Cynthia, Inside Wire was an opportunity to learn new skills. Because she’s serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, she’s been shut out of any formal education programs.
“There’s an outlook that, basically, I’m a waste of space,” Cynthia says.
Lifers like her can’t usually get into education beyond a GED, she says, because there’s an idea that “you won’t ever use your degree. I’ve had to find different roads to grow.”
Out of a prison population of around 16,000, only 32 women and 87 men in the Colorado Department of Corrections were enrolled in formal college classes at the end of 2022, according to data Open Campus obtained in a records request. Training programs like Inside Wire offer an alternative, hands-on kind of education.
Producers earn a certificate, “Fundamentals of Sound Production and Audio Storytelling” from DU’s University College. The certificate grants continuing education credits, which are accepted by some colleges as transfer credits, but they cannot be applied to degree requirements from DU.
The certificate program teaches students how to use the audio equipment and produce stories. For her final project, Amber is working on a feature about the prison’s dog training program.
While the expansion of federal financial aid for incarcerated students later this year is expected to increase access to higher education in prison, colleges like the University of Denver also help fill a programming gap in prisons by offering other opportunities such as journalism and creative writing and theater workshops.
Those programs tend to be accessible regardless of someone’s sentence, although projects like Inside Wire usually only involve a handful of people due to the physical space they require.
And access to the studio has been limited due to staff shortages, so the women are currently only able to work two days a week. GED and vocational instruction is limited, too, with instructors only teaching on Tuesdays. The rest of the week, teachers are being reassigned to work in other areas of the prison to compensate for a lack of correctional officers — what started as a pandemic stop gap has become the status quo.
Inside Wire also offers the opportunity for people to have a paid job, though it only pays pennies per hour. But there’s a disparity between the women’s prison and three men’s facilities where Inside Wire also operates stations.
At Denver Women’s, Cynthia is the only paid producer. She says she makes about $9 a month. Tiffany and Amber volunteer, but put in nearly as many hours. Amber has a paid position in the prison library, and Tiffany works as a porter.
While the studio at Denver Women’s is only allowed to have a single paid spot, the men’s prisons have multiple paid positions. Buena Vista and Sterling both have three paid producers, while Limon has six.
Back in the studio, program director Ryan Conarro sits working on a script for a spot he wants the women to record. Finishing up Hotlines, Tiffany takes a look and makes a crack about needing to decipher his handwriting before she can do a run through of the script.
The women wrap up recording. It’s clear they’re having fun.
“Peace out!” they sign off.
++Inside Wire is broadcast across the Colorado Department of Corrections and online at coloradoprisonradio.com.
News & views
The pandemic forced many prison education programs to adopt remote learning. Now that same technology allows formerly incarcerated students to continue their education alongside their peers still inside, Anna Savchenko reports for WBEZ Chicago.
Photographer Peter Merts’ new book, Ex Crucible: The Passion of Incarcerated Artists, showcases people participating in prison arts programs ranging from music, writing and visual arts to dance and theater. According to the Justice Arts Coalition, 48 states offer some sort of prison arts programs, Eva Rothenberg reports for CNN. The book is now available from Daylight Books.
While incarcerated, Sandra Brown earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and started a Ph.D. program via correspondence courses. Now she’s helping others get an education through her work with the Chicago-based nonprofit Women’s Justice Institute, Annie Sweeney and Erin Hooley report for the Chicago Tribune.
Over the past year, reporters for The Marshall Project asked every state prison system for book policies and lists of banned publications. About half of the states said they kept such lists, which contained more than 50,000 titles. The Marshall Project created a searchable database of those banned books.
FutureU podcast hosts Michael B. Horn and Jeff Selling talk about prison education with Erin Castro, a higher education professor at the University of Utah, and Terrell Blount, director of the nonprofit Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network.
Support for college-in-prison programs waxes and wanes, writes Katti Gray for MLK50, but education, along with housing and job training, is deemed critical to thriving after leaving prison.
The Colorado Community Colleges system wants lawmakers to allow colleges to consider incarcerated people for state aid by allowing them to be counted as full-time students, Jason Gonzalez and Erica Meltzer report for Chalkbeat Colorado. State Rep. Matthew Martinez (D) filed House Bill 1037 to reduce prison sentence by six months if someone earns a college certificate or credential, or up to a year if they earn a degree. The option would be available only to people who have non-violent charges.
The Vera Institute published a new fact sheet, Accessing Pell Grants for College Programs in Correctional Settings — A Summary of the Regulations and Requirements. The fact sheet highlights the main points of the Department of Education’s regulations and presents a simplified version of the processes they describe.
The nonprofit Interrogating Justice published an article defining the most urgent issues related to Pell Grant funding facing incarcerated students and college administrators. Challenges include information dissemination, equitable screening processes, program accountability and academic integrity.
Here’s the recording of a panel that I moderated for JSTOR in December on student debt relief for incarcerated borrowers and Education Department programs to bring defaulted loans into good standing. We have also published a guide for incarcerated borrowers.
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 email@example.com or on Twitter at @szarlotka. To reach me via snail mail, you can write to: Open Campus, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.
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