This article is co-published with the Prison Journalism Project.
“You find the measure of slope by dividing the change in the two Y points, by the change in the two X points.” I said as I helped a student study for his math exam.
He shook his head. “I’m not going to get this,” he said, discouraged. “This is not making sense.”
This kind of struggle with math is something I see everyday as a GED tutor at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater.
“Have you ever considered requesting an accommodation?” I asked.
“What’s an accommodation?” was his reply.
This student is one of the many people incarcerated in the Minnesota Department of Corrections who have not only been denied access to extra supports like extended testing time or having text read aloud to them, but also didn’t even know they might qualify. That’s a serious problem.
The number of incarcerated students who qualify for the help isn’t tracked. But people in state and federal prisons (38%) are about two and a half times more likely to report a disability than adults in the U.S. general population (15%).
About a quarter of the nearly 8,000 people incarcerated in Minnesota were enrolled in education and were eligible to attain their GED as of July 2022. But only 19 requests for GED accommodations had been submitted in the state since 2017, according to the federal Justice Department.
And that’s despite the fact that correctional staff — interviewed by DOJ as part of a four-year civil rights investigation — said the majority of their students may have disabilities. All of those 19 requests came from one teacher at one facility. There are nine other prisons in Minnesota where students received no accommodation at all.
The fact is, as a GED tutor, I don’t know how many of the men I work with would be eligible for accommodation, but I expect the number is much, much higher than the number who actually get the support they need.
In September 2022, the DOJ found that the Minnesota corrections department violated the rights of incarcerated students with disabilities by denying them opportunities to receive GED accommodations. In mid February, Minnesota reached an agreement with the Justice Department that it would revise its policies and procedures, hire an American Disability Act compliance officer and educate incarcerated individuals on the new policies and their rights. The department will also pay over $70,000 in compensatory damages to individuals with disabilities who were denied accommodations.
The Americans with Disabilities Act says that people in prison can’t be excluded from regular programming because of disabilities. While the Justice Department noted that Minnesota generally allowed qualified individuals with disabilities to enroll or participate in GED programs, it found that the DOC unlawfully denied them an equal opportunity to benefit from the program by failing to provide necessary reasonable accommodations.
Here’s why the GED is so significant in Minnesota: It has become a gatekeeper in the DOC for people to get access to higher paying jobs, learning a trade, and pursuing higher education. It will become even more important later this year as college programs will begin expanding in the facilities with the return of Pell Grants.
However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Official policy allows us to work a job and go to school to attain their GED simultaneously. But in reality, if you apply for a job you’ll probably get denied and referred to education. Nobody is allowing guys to do both. Many people have been trapped in this revolving cycle throughout their incarceration, to the point that they get released without a credential. This contributes to their inability to find a sustainable career upon release, and it may even lead to them returning to prison.
Although I welcome the changes that might come with the Justice Department’s settlement, there’s more that can be done. Many people don’t know what an accommodation is because they don’t know what qualifies as a disability. We could start to address this by educating students on their rights, as well as on disabilities.
Students’ disabilities aren’t being acknowledged and they are forced to continue education on a playing field where they’re at a disadvantage. There’s no equality for people who are feeling discouraged every time they fail a test, and don’t even realize why they’re failing, or that proper assistance is available for them. I often see guys lose hope that they’ll ever earn their GED. By the time this happens, they’ve mentally given up on themselves when in reality, it’s the system that gave up on them.
To be eligible for accommodations on the GED test, a student must provide recent documentation of a diagnosis. Oftentimes, people who might qualify don’t have access to those records in prison. In addition, people sometimes develop disabilities after they are incarcerated. Someone might spend over a year in solitary confinement for a rule violation. Throughout that time, they can develop anxiety, depression, or PTSD. If that disorder hasn’t been documented, they won’t qualify for the modifications.
And, students currently have to rely on teachers to submit the accommodation request, and in some cases, determine if they should receive the extra help. One education director told the Justice Department that she considered people disabled only if they did not have “hands or arms, or are blind or deaf.”
These teachers and administrators aren’t psychologists. We’re in a controlled environment under constant surveillance, which makes it challenging for the teacher to identify if the student is actually displaying symptoms stemming from an intellectual or psychological disability, or is just being “defiant.”
And it can be particularly difficult for students with cognitive disabilities — which includes things like dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — since those things aren’t as obvious. Nationally, about a quarter of state prisoners reported having a cognitive disability, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Cole DeGroot, a student I tutored, is an example of someone who was successful when he was given the necessary accommodations. He’s one of the few able to receive this kind of assistance on GED tests because he’s had a formal diagnosis and has been in special education since he was a kid. He was allowed more testing time and had his test read aloud to him.
“It helped me out a lot,” he told me. “I have a hard time reading, so it was good to have someone read it to me and give me more time to understand what I’m doing.”
DeGroot is a great example why accommodations are paramount for students with disabilities. His success has motivated him to go further in education and employment — options that would not have been available without secondary education.
Instead of asking someone if they have a disability, staff should consider asking if they’ve ever been diagnosed with ADHD, depression, or anxiety. Asking if someone has a hard time staying focused while reading would also help identify students who might benefit from additional assistance.
Students should also be allowed to request a 504 Plan even if they do not qualify for an individual education plan, according to Eunha Jeong Wood, a former special education teacher and current college professor at the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Stillwater. The plan allows them to receive accommodations without a special education evaluation if they are seeking specific accommodations and have a medical diagnosis.
Another major change Minnesota could make is offering alternatives to the GED program, such as a high school diploma or an adult diploma, at all facilities. Those options allow students to demonstrate their knowledge without a high-pressure test, opening up multiple paths to academic success.
With the settlement agreement in place, we’re expecting to see a significant change in our education department at Stillwater, and hopefully throughout the Minnesota Department of Corrections. My hope is that teachers, administrators, and especially students can not only learn what an accommodation is, but also actually receive them.
This story was updated on March 15 to clarify the details of the 504 Plan.
Donovan Diego is a tutor in the education department at the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Stillwater. He’s earning a bachelor’s degree in education with a focus in special education at Metro State University.