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

If you’re short on time:

• This week, Ryan Moser takes over College Inside to recap yesterday’s event on Pell in Prisons. We talked to experts in higher education, including formerly incarcerated students, to examine the gap between hope and reality in the Pell rollout. The recording is available here (passcode: ==gu53?M).

Charlotte West will be in Austin the week of March 6 for SXSW EDU. Stop by a panel she’s moderating at 1 p.m. central on March 6 about why access to higher ed in prisons matters.

ICYMI: Charlotte’s article “We’ve been asking the same thing about tech training in prisons for 50 years,” was copublished last month with Slate.

Hey there, I’m Ryan Moser, filling in for the indefatigable Charlotte West for this exciting issue of College Inside about the return of Pell in prisons. I started my journalism career behind bars and now I am working as a freelance writer. (See this essay I wrote for Open Campus on how I parented my college student son from prison.) With thousands of incarcerated students eager to start college this year, we’ll be looking at the potential obstacles these students could face, and the role of departments of corrections and colleges in the rollout.

When I was a resident at the Everglades Correctional Institution in Florida, I learned first-hand about the gap between the hope of starting college and the reality of doing this inside a maximum-security warehouse. I met some men who couldn’t attend college because of defaulted student loans, while others couldn’t prove state residency, even though they lived in a Florida state prison.

Pell is not enough

A class from Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in Colorado joined the virtual event Tuesday.

At the opening of our virtual event on Tuesday, Stephanie Gaskill, a research fellow at Loyola University New Orleans, shared her research, “Pell is Not Enough,” on the problems with the grants not covering necessary costs like college staffing, student transcript fees, and more. “That’s the biggest issue we’re going to face, that Pell simply can’t cover the cost of programming for university administrations or incarcerated students,” Stephanie explained. “Offering college courses inside prison is labor intensive and can cost the school thousands of dollars, not to mention the expense of staffing the classes.”

She said that a lack of information is one of the biggest challenges for Pell. For example, students don’t know that they have a lifetime limit (12 semesters) of Pell eligibility. “People need to be able to make informed choices about Pell dollars,” Stephanie said. “That’s your money as a student, and that’s being used on your behalf. And so I think it’s a responsibility for those of us helping to bring programs in to make sure that people are making informed decisions.”

Give everyone a chance to redeem themselves

When Angel E. Sanchez started serving what he thought would be a 30-year sentence, he asked about education and was told that he couldn’t go to school until he had five years left on his sentence. “When I got down five years I was put on a waiting list and never got enrolled,” he said. After getting out and going to college, Angel eventually became a lawyer. Now he describes the unavailability of college to those with long sentences as one of the biggest challenges to Pell reinstatement.

Lifers encourage others to take advantage of opportunities inside. “This is a barrier that could keep the program from being a success,” Angel said.

The Pell Grant has been touted as a universal benefit that is “sentence blind and crime blind,” Angel said. Institutions have been encouraged to offer college applications to everyone, regardless of their length of sentence, but states have a lot of leeway in how they determine who can enroll in programs.

Prison officials must help, not hurt

The gatekeepers to state institutions are typically wardens, but every staff member down to a correctional officer or a kitchen contractor can hinder facility operations or make things run smoothly. Incorporating a college program into a prison involves a lot of planning that needs support from the top, but also day-to-day support from the guards on the ground.

“We must get the administrations to buy into college inside if we want it to succeed,” said Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, a formerly incarcerated award-winning podcaster who earned his associate degree at San Quentin State Prison.

“I was fortunate,” Rahsaan said. “Not every prison is supportive of college classes, and someone shouldn’t have to hope to end up at a place like San Quentin in order to get an education.”

++ Watch a recording of the event here (Passcode: ==gu53?M)

++ Have ideas about other virtual events? Get in touch.

Rural prisons struggle to provide college-in-person programming

I’ve been in prisons that offer a lot of educational opportunities and those that don’t; the fact is, rural prisons might be the most underserved.

Last year, I had a conversation with Katie Owens-Murphy, an English professor at the University of North Alabama about what it would take to expand access to prison education in her state.

“It’s difficult to find university instructors who have the ability to drive long distances to teach,” said Katie, who also directs Inside-Out classes where North Alabama students come inside the prison to study alongside incarcerated classmates.

With hundreds of prisons sitting outside the convenience of urban areas, thousands of incarcerated people may lose out on college. For example, the University of North Alabama cannot expand into a degree program at this time because of the shortage of faculty; for that reason students won’t be able to take advantage of Pell.

However, some colleges like Auburn University arrange to have prisoners from rural institutions moved to a more central prison to provide in-person programming.

I asked Katie if Zoom could be an alternative to in-person classes, potentially allowing many more incarcerated students to enroll in college and get a degree.

It really depends on the facility, she told me. When North Alabama recently started a program at the women’s prison that’s four hours away, they had to limit the number of participants because it was hard to see and hear everyone on the screen.

And while the bigger issue might be a lack of opportunities in rural prisons, geography can also be a disincentive even when education is available. During our Pell webinar, Angel Sanchez mentioned that people will often forgo education if it means being transferred to a prison far away from their families. “One of the ways we address that is by making the benefit universal — by not putting it in one place but not the other and forcing people to pick,” he said.

News & views

Jobs for the Future’s Center for Justice & Economic Advancement is recruiting community colleges and two-year state institutions to participate in the CTE PEP Accelerator Network. Applications are due March 3.

Publishing company W. W. Norton & Company has partnered with the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison to donate textbooks to higher education in prison programs. Applications are due March 31. Check out the available books and fill out the application here.

JSTOR Access in Prison wants to hear from currently or formerly incarcerated people on the theme of Education and Second Chances. Submissions should be received via email or postmarked before March 16. More information here.

The University of Southern California’s Prison Education Project is accepting submissions from justice-involved writers on the theme of movement. Deadline is April 15. More information here.

The Prison Journalism Project released a database of current prison newspapers published across the country. They estimated that there were 24 operational, prisoner-run news publications in 12 states as of February 2023.

The Vera Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Assistance published a new report, How Corrections Departments Are Preparing People for In-Demand Careers That Support America’s Infrastructure, in February. It highlights partnerships between DOCs and local colleges, employers, and/or community-based organizations in Kansas, Washington, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, and Michigan.

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 reach me, Ryan Moser, on Twitter @mosermultimedia. To reach Open Campus via snail mail, you can write to: 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.

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Ryan M. Moser is a formerly incarcerated journalist and award-winning author who’s work has been published over 200 times in literary journals and in media outlets. To see his full portfolio go to muckrack.com/ryan-moser.