Short on time? Here are the highlights:
- This morning, we co-published a story on the return of Pell Grants for people in prison with USA Today. The expansion of Pell has been 30 years in the making, but the federal aid by itself is not enough to make college available to everyone immediately.
- From his vantage point as a tutor, Donovan Diego writes about a recent federal investigation into the Minnesota Department of Corrections’ discrimination against GED students with disabilities.
- State legislatures are advancing bills related to prison education, many that would help pave the way for Pell Grant expansion. A bill in Oklahoma that would restore need-based state aid to incarcerated students and a Colorado measure to allow people to earn time off their sentences for completing education programs moved forward.
- Has your state department of corrections launched its application for Pell-eligible prison education programs, or are there bills related to prison education being considered by your state legislature? I’m also interested in talking to educators working in federal facilities. Reach out at email@example.com!
- My colleague Emma Folts, at our partner newsroom PublicSource, is looking to talk to people about prison education in Pennsylvania, including those working with GED programs. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
30 years in the making
Caddell Kivett is ready to go back to college. He sorted out some old, defaulted student loans. He figured out what he wants to study. And he thought he found a new way to pay for his classes.
Except Kivett, 52, is in prison.
He’ll be able, in theory, to use a federal Pell Grant to help pay for his education come July. It marks the first time in nearly three decades that incarcerated people — as many as 700,000 of them, according to the Education Department — are broadly eligible for the aid, and the policy change could open up new college opportunities across the country.
The expansion of Pell Grants has been a long-sought change since the 1994 crime bill eliminated them for people in prison and ended the majority of prison education programs. Although educating people in prison has been shown to have a number of benefits, the new money may be difficult for many to access for a host of reasons.
In Kivett’s case, the only higher ed option at his North Carolina facility is a theology degree. He wants to study journalism after working for the prison newspaper, the Nash News.
And he learned a harsh reality following months of phone calls and letters to colleges that offer accredited, paper-based correspondence courses: The federal aid can be used only at prisons that have Pell-eligible college programs. His doesn’t.
Pell Grants are the main form of federal financial aid for low-income students, which includes most incarcerated learners, providing a maximum annual award of $7,395.
But Pell funds won’t be enough to suddenly make college available to everyone like Kivett. Basic information gaps need to be filled, college support structures need to be built, and departments of corrections need to sort out their new role in all of this.
That raises questions about how programs are assessed and who ensures they are actually meeting students’ needs. And it means opportunities will vary widely by state. Right now, incarcerated people in less than a third of state and federal prisons have access to postsecondary education, and much of what is offered doesn’t lead to an academic degree.
Places like California that currently draw on state funds to allow incarcerated students to take community college classes will be using Pell funding to expand bachelor’s programs. Some states will be starting from scratch. Others might not participate at all.
All of this is happening as both prisons and colleges are still recovering from the pandemic, correctional agencies across the country are facing staff shortages, and everyone is still waiting on the final word from the Education Department on exactly how it will sign off on new programs. What it all adds up to is this: despite the return of Pell, most incarcerated people still won’t be able to get a college education this fall.
Read the rest of the story.
‘There’s no equality’ for disabled students in prison
From his vantage point as a GED tutor at the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Stillwater, Donovan Diego writes about how he has seen GED students who might have disabilities struggle without the necessary accommodations, such as extended testing time.
He weaves his personal observations as a tutor with findings from a recent Department of Justice investigation into the Minnesota Department of Corrections systematic discrimination against GED students with disabilities.
“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,” he writes.
People in state and federal prisons are about two and a half times more likely to report a disability than adults in the U.S. general population.
The need for corrections agencies to provide the accommodations necessary for GED students with disabilities is important for those students to be able to access higher education and employment. But these kinds of lawsuits are common.
Two lawsuits filed in February allege that the District of Columbia failed to provide special education services to D.C. residents incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Last year, a court in New Jersey awarded incarcerated students who were deprived of special education services up to $8,000 per year in “compensatory education” benefits, following a class action settlement.
Donovan’s story was co-published with the Prison Journalism Project.
Bills to watch
State lawmakers are busy considering prison-education bills, many of which would help pave the way for Pell Grant expansion. Others aim to help prevent employment and educational discrimination related to criminal history.
Notably, a bill in Oklahoma that would restore need-based assistance to incarcerated students passed the state senate. And, in Colorado, a measure that would allow people who are convicted of nonviolent crimes to earn time off their sentences for completing education programs moved from the house to the state senate. (Read more on this by our colleague Jason Gonzales for Chalkbeat Colorado.)
Here are some other recently introduced bills:
- Illinois House Bill 3740 would allow incarcerated students to be eligible for the state’s AIM HIGH Grant Pilot Program, which provides financial assistance to undergraduates attending the state’s 12 public four year institutions. House Bill 3818 would establish a commission on higher education in prison that would advise the state’s higher education board. The commission would include four former students who participated in prison education.
- Connecticut Senate Bill 923 would prohibit both public and private education institutions from considering criminal histories during the admissions process. Research shows that even asking about criminal history on an admissions application can deter potential students.
- Texas House Bill 4251 would lay some of the groundwork necessary for the expansion of federal Pell Grants. It would require the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to establish a formal application and approval process for colleges seeking to establish prison education programs.
- Florida House Bill 939 would establish the “Florida Scholars Academy” within the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice. The program intends to provide incarcerated students in juvenile facilities with a chance to earn a high school credential, enroll in a degree program at a state college or university, or earn industry-recognized credentials.
- New York Assembly Bill 4893 would require public agencies to establish preliminary license application procedures to determine whether an applicant would be ineligible based on criminal history. It would allow people to know if they are eligible for a license before investing in training or education.
- There are several bills related to prison education in Oregon. Senate Bill 269 would require the state corrections department and Higher Education Coordinating Commission to enter into a memorandum of understanding on issues such as data-sharing, distance learning policies, and assisting incarcerated students with applying for financial aid. Another measure, Senate Bill 270, would allow incarcerated students to enroll in distance learning programs outside of the service area of the local college where their prison is located. Senate Bill 1082 establishes support programs for formerly incarcerated students modeled off of the California State University’s Project Rebound, while Senate Bill 517 would prevent licensing bodies from denying someone an occupational or professional license solely because of a criminal conviction.
- Massachusetts Senate Bill 822 aims to ensure that financial aid staff of public colleges proactively reach out to prospective incarcerated students and recently released students who had finished their GED to inform them about available state financial aid.
- Maryland House Bill 416 would require the state corrections agency to assist incarcerated students in accessing federal financial aid and consult with colleges. The state labor department would be required to set targets for the number of students enrolled in higher education and establish a data system to track enrollment.
New housing support for formerly incarcerated students
When college students get out of prison, they may face a number of practical challenges. For starters: Where are they going to live?
Several California universities are starting to offer supportive housing for formerly incarcerated students through organizations such as Project Rebound, Gail Cornwall reported for The Hechinger Report and The Nation in February.
“Research indicates that only around one-third of California colleges offer any services tailored to formerly incarcerated students, let alone housing, and that 72% of those are community colleges,” Cornwall wrote.
About 70% of people in prison say they would like to receive a college credential, yet only 4% end up graduating from college. Housing insecurity is among the barriers they face.
The more access formerly incarcerated students are given to academic services and supportive housing, the more likely they are to graduate, Cornwall wrote.
– Maddison Hwang, Open Campus editorial assistant
Opportunities & events
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.
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.
Recently, the Education Department published their proposed prison education program application form for public comment, open until April 28. On Tuesday, March 28, from 3 pm to 4 pm eastern, the Vera Institute of Justice will be hosting a webinar about the application form and how to engage in the public comment process. There will also be a Q&A session with the Education Department. Register for the event here.
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, on Twitter @szarlotka. To reach Open Campus via snail mail, you can write to: 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.
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