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Pursuing a degree inside isn’t easy, but success is ‘so sweet’

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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:

• This week, we’re featuring a guest essay by Lyle C. May, a prison journalist in North Carolina. Lyle writes about how gaining access to education on death row gave him the tools to fight back against policies that restricted that access.

• Earlier this month, we published an as-told-to story about how some people in prison are using contraband cell phones to pursue education with The Marshall Project.

• 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.

• 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.

College on death row

This week, we’re featuring a guest essay by Lyle C. May, a prison journalist who is incarcerated at Central Prison in North Carolina. “Higher education will never be universally supported by prison officials, administrators, and guards,” Lyle writes. “It is both what makes pursuing a degree on the inside so difficult and success so sweet.”

Here’s an excerpt:

Father Dan offered me a life-altering opportunity that initially sounded far-fetched.

“You need to get something on your mind,” he said. “What would you say to enrolling in a few college courses?”

I struggled to smother my disbelief. I dropped out of high school and my education ended with a GED from a youth detention center in Maine. I hadn’t had any kind of formal schooling since I came to death row in 1999 at the age of 21.

Yet, there was no doubt in my mind that I needed more than the horror of executions, more than the self-defeating behaviors that make prison violent warehouses of humanity. I needed the tools to separate myself from the person I used to be and reach for something better. The priest offered a way, and I took it.

On death row, the value of that offer was exponentially greater because it acknowledged my humanity and potential to overcome the odds.

++Read the full essay here.

‘How an illicit cell phone helped me take college classes from prison’

Earlier this month, in partnership with The Marshall Project, we published an as-told-to story about the risks that some people are taking to get an education inside. The student I profiled told me about how he blurred the background and wore a plain t-shirt during his Zoom sessions because he was worried that his university would find out he was in prison.

Illustration by Lorenzo D’Alessandro for The Marshall Project

“​​I met two of my classmates in the criminal justice certificate program,” he said. “What I didn’t mention to them is that not only do I work in a prison, I also reside there.”

The Marshall Project also published a reported piece by formerly incarcerated journalist Keri Blakinger focused on the various ways that people use contraband cell phones — for everything ranging from documenting poor conditions inside to healthcare and education.

Keri said she knew she wanted to write the story when one of her sources told her how he and dozens of other men used a group messaging app to teach each other Harvard’s CS50 curriculum, an entry-level computer science class available for free on edX.

“I was so blown away by their tech know-how, the hurdles they had to overcome to put together the class and get illicit access, and by the sheer number of people participating,” Keri told me.

Keri says that people in society often have a distorted understanding of how people use cell phones in prison. “When people are using their cell phones for positive purposes, we rarely hear about it because there are risks for prisoners to publicize this information and no incentive for prison officials to do so,” she says.

Artificial intelligence and education justice

In the last few weeks, a new app, ChatGPT, has caused a kerfuffle in academia. Christopher Beasley, a formerly incarcerated professor who works with reentry support at the University of Washington Tacoma, has been using ChatGPT to write a newsletter, Educational Justice AI.

He publishes AI-generated posts on topics such as how higher education in prison is both oppressive and empowering.

He uses AI as an aid in his research, helping to make connections and developing counter arguments. While he finds AI helpful, the technology will potentially further widen the gaping tech divide for people who are in prison, Beasley says.

There’s a steep learning curve for learning to interact with AI, “knowing what kind of questions to ask, how to ask those questions, and how to follow up on answers,” he says. “Incarcerated people will be among those who fall in the wrong side of this technical divide.”

Beasley is currently working with an incarcerated scholar doing public policy work. He shares AI-generated policy briefs as well as counterarguments with the scholar.

“I’ve…asked him to provide queries that I can run for him,” he says. “We’re just beginning this process so I can’t speak as to the outcome, but I hope that it gives him familiarity with AI and how to converse with it as well as the limitations.”

News & views

For the Chronicle of Higher Education, Katherine Mangan writes about how prison education often overlooks women.

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators published a report that identifies promising practices learned through Second Chance Pell and recommendations for institutions, Congress, and the Department of Education.

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. You can always reach me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.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. But as a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on grants and donations to keep bringing you the news about prison education. If you would like to support our work, please send a check made out to Open Campus Media to 1 Thomas Circle NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20005. You can also donate here.

Interested in reaching people who care about higher education in prisons? Get in touch at sales@opencampusmedia.org or request our media kit.

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