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.

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A class at Georgetown University and University of California-Santa Cruz focused on wrongful convictions combines criminal investigation and narrative storytelling. On Tuesday, May 2 at 7 pm eastern, the Making an Exoneree class will be holding an end-of-the-semester showcase at Georgetown both online and in-person. Details will be posted here.
  • The Education Department released a fact sheet about Pell Grants for people in prison.
  • ICYMI: Read the latest on how incarcerated borrowers can access “fresh start” — the policy that will bring all eligible defaulted loans into good standing. Plus, a new history book on the Indiana Women’s Prison written by women who are incarcerated there.

How students are helping to get people out of prison

When someone calls from prison, everything stops.

“Tim’s on the phone!” professor Sharon Daniel shouts out, interrupting her film class at University of California-Santa Cruz.

Sixteen students put down their lights and camera equipment and gather around Daniel as she holds out her phone. “Put Tim on speakerphone,” someone says.

The deep voice on the other end of the line is Tim Young, who has been incarcerated on California’s death row at San Quentin State Prison since 1999. Last year, Young was the subject of a documentary film made by Daniel’s students.

Daniel’s current film students in Santa Cruz are working with others at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. on a project focused on wrongful conviction. Five years ago, law professor Marc Howard started his “Making an Exoneree” class, a riff on the name of the Netflix series “Making a Murderer.”

Daniel began working with Howard last year after she submitted Young’s case for consideration.

Their collaboration is one part criminal investigation and one part narrative storytelling. Teams of three Georgetown students are paired with three Santa Cruz students who all focus on a single case. The Georgetown students research and fact find while the Santa Cruz students create a documentary.

The undergraduates — most of whom have never been in a prison or even interacted with someone who is incarcerated — gain firsthand experience with the criminal justice system. They dig into decades-old cases and document what they find. They not only get to know the intricacies of what happened, they also get to know the person behind the case.

“The fact that they have had a chance to interact with system-impacted people such as myself means that they will be better suited to go out into the world and to protect and promote the interests of justice,” Young said during a recent phone call from San Quentin.

In some instances, the students’ work can even help pave the way to freedom. Since 2018, five wrongfully convicted men came home after participating in the course, including Kenneth Bond, who was released from a Maryland prison in early February. In Pennsylvania, a group of students gave a presentation to Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner’s conviction integrity unit. And as a result of the students’ investigation into Young last year, a major law firm has agreed to look into his case.

Making education matter

Students in Sharon Daniel’s “Making an Exoneree” class at University of California-Santa Cruz practice setting up the equipment they’ll use to make documentaries featuring wrongful conviction cases. Maddison Hwang/Open Campus

Howard became a lawyer because his childhood friend, Marty Tankleff, spent almost two decades behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. Tankleff is now co-teaching the Georgetown course — he immediately enrolled in college after his release in 2007, and got a law degree. He commutes to D.C. from New York once a week to teach the course with Howard.

Howard and other faculty spend the fall semester vetting case options for those that have the potential to be overturned — reasons could be anything from ineffective counsel to missing evidence. Then the students dig through court transcripts, police reports, and videotapes and re-interview witnesses and the subjects themselves.

“We want our students to become sleuths,” said Howard, who also directs Georgetown’s Prison and Justice Initiative. Sometimes cases stall, but even then, “the students…have a better understanding of what actually happened than the official records.”

Howard and Tankleff show the students how to navigate the process ethically, as well as practically, such as not talking about sensitive topics on recorded phone lines. In some cases, Howard or Tankleff will end up representing the subject, which allows them to have legal visits.

What they’re after is the truth, even if it turns out that someone wasn’t wrongfully convicted.

“If you find out bad information, you have to work with that, and then potentially even drop a case,” Howard said.

The students are supported with an incredible amount of resources. They have access to a vast network of experts, ranging from private investigators to professors who specialize in shoe print analysis.

Arlando “Tray” Jones III, who was the subject of one of the “Making an Exoneree” investigations two years ago, talks to Georgetown students Annie Kane and Jacob Livesay about how to build a relationship with their subjects.
Charlotte West/Open Campus

One of those experts is Arlando “Tray” Jones III, who was one of the subjects of “Making an Exoneree” two years ago. After being released last summer, he now sits in the same classroom where a team of student investigators previously dug into his case. He talks the students through how to build a relationship with their subjects.

“Make sure you come from a place of genuine compassion rather than a place of pity,” he said.

Jones has stayed close to the three students who worked on his case – one is even now in law school at Georgetown. He said that interacting with them gave him hope at a time when he had nearly given up.

The students aren’t called upon to believe a person’s innocence, they are tasked with investigating the facts, Jones said. “These students who would otherwise be sheltered in the ivory tower are challenged to go out there and pursue justice and make their education matter.”

This spring, the project expanded to include Princeton, where students are investigating an additional five cases. Howard hopes that in the future more universities might offer similar classes focused on wrongful conviction.

“My hope is deeply renewed”

Film students Cindy Ortiz, Bonnie Yam, Keith Gelderloos are working on a documentary for a wrongful conviction class at University of California-Santa Cruz. Maddison Hwang/Open Campus

By the end of January, the Georgetown students already knew the ins and outs of their cases. Jacob Livesay, Isabella Todaro, and Annie Kane stood in front of the class to present the progress they’d made on Sarah Jo Pender’s case in Indiana.

Pender was sentenced to 110 years in prison after she was convicted of murder in 2002. Todaro told the class that there are questions about the validity of a letter she supposedly wrote that was used against her in court, among other issues with her case.

Pender’s father sent her case to “Making an Exoneree” a few years ago. She had almost given up when she received a letter from Georgetown saying that they would look into her case. “It was like winning a full scholarship to law school,” Pender wrote in an email.

“Now, after speaking with Annie, Jacob and Isabella, my hope is deeply renewed,” she wrote. “I was also surprised at the amount of resources that they have access to…Just mind-blowing. And heart-warming to know these people all care about doing the right things in justice and are helping me get home.”

Kane said she was excited when she found out that her team would be working on Pender’s case. “I didn’t go in necessarily with any expectations for what I was going to find out about her,” Kane said. “But the moment I started reading through her case, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, she’s completely innocent.’”

Georgetown professor Marc Howard’s “Making an Exoneree” class connects with Sharon Daniel’s film class at University of California-Santa Cruz via zoom. Charlotte West/Open Campus

In Santa Cruz, Daniel’s film students Keith Gelderloos, Cindy Ortiz, and Bonnie Yam are working on a documentary about Pender’s case. Over spring break earlier this month, the two groups of students met each other in Indiana. The Georgetown students were able to visit with Pender during a legal visit with Tankleff.

Gelderloos, a film and digital media major, said making the film has given him new insight into the lives of people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system — and he hopes it will bring the same understanding to others. “There was a level of emotional impact from this project that I’ve never really received from any of the other work that I’ve done,” he said.

++ Related coverage: The Illinois Innocence Project, based at the University of Illinois Springfield, held its first mandated statewide Wrongful Conviction Awareness and Avoidance training for police recruits at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Police Training Institute at the end of March. Starting in 2023, the training became a required curriculum at all Illinois police training academies.

Overcoming the statistics

Angel Gilbert was 12 when her mom went to prison. It was like she went to prison too, Gilbert wrote in a recent piece in Slate. “Statistics suggest I should have been held back, or dropped out of high school altogether. I’m lucky to be among the estimated 2 percent of children with incarcerated moms who will graduate from college.”

Today, Gilbert is a student at Columbia University and hopes to eventually become a lawyer. “Given that kids in foster care are more likely to end up in prison themselves, I easily could have joined her,” she wrote.

A number of new programs at colleges are hoping to help break this intergenerational cycle of incarceration. Music students at the University of South Carolina are working with incarcerated mothers to compose musical messages for their babies. The program, known as the Lullaby Project, motivates the women to participate in more positive programming, one mother told The Good News Network.

Elsewhere, the 2022 Minnesota Student Survey found that nearly one in five teens in the state has a parent that is incarcerated. The state health department has partnered with the University of Minnesota to offer a new pilot program that will facilitate 3,500 video visits and offer parenting education programs to incarcerated parents in local jails.

++ Related coverage: Ryan Moser wrote about what it was like to parent his college student son from prison.

Art inspired by prison education

“Northern Slopes of Education”, donated to to the Kruizenga Art Museum at Hope College in Michigan.
Alvin Smith, 2022.

Incarcerated artist Alvin Smith donated a painting, “Northern Slopes of Education,” to the Kruizenga Art Museum at Hope College in Michigan. The inspiration for the piece came from a math class Smith took with professor David Austin through Hope’s prison education program.

The piece represents that the fact that Smith’s educational “slope line” no longer travels downward — it’s going up. He learned about slope lines through in-class games that students played on dry erase boards.

The professor “revealed to us at the end of class that we had in fact been doing calculus, and that he hadn’t told us beforehand because we would have instantly told ourselves that we could not do it,” Smith wrote.

“We all gave in to his process, and by the time that we were discussing ‘slope lines’ I personally made the connection that the equation depicted within the painting represented my newfound relationship with mathematics.”

$100 million for prison education…but not exactly

At first glance, it looks like Alabama Governor Kay Ivey’s education budget invests heavily in educating incarcerated students. The budget allocates $100 million for prison education out of approximately $250 million going to the state community college system, reported Wyle Whitmire, a columnist for AL.com.

Whitmire wrote to the state’s finance director, Bill Poole, to ask him how exactly the community college system would use the money.

“This funding would support the construction of the education and vocational facilities at the planned Elmore and Escambia prison facilities,” Poole wrote back. “These funds would be restricted such that they could not be used for any purpose related to those projects beyond the construction and equipping of the education and vocational facilities.”

Whitmire noted this is part of a larger prison-constructing spree Alabama has been on for the last several years. “In short, this isn’t money to educate prisoners — it’s money to pay for the part of the prisons where they’ll educate prisoners,” he wrote.

Read Whitmire’s full column for AL.com here.

News & views

A new research brief targeted at corrections departments as the new oversight entities for Pell Grants was published this week by the Research Collaborative on Higher Education in Prison at the University of UtahStephanie Gaskill and Erin Castro analyze comments on the optional metrics proposed by the Education Department to evaluate whether programs are operating in the best interest of students.

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.

Exchange for Change, a nonprofit in southeastern Florida, is inviting the public to attend spring graduation events where students will present the work they did over the past semester. Sign up here.

Every day in April, JSTOR Access in Prison is publishing essays or other creative works by currently or formerly incarcerated people on the theme of how education affects second chances.

On Wednesday April 19 at 3 pm eastern, JSTOR will host a webinar, Supporting Special Needs Students in Prisons and Jails. The event will feature a conversation between student Ben Wright and Jennifer Montag, who directs student disability services at Marion Technical College.

Incarcerated students in the Maine Department of Corrections will debate students from other colleges in a series of events organized by the National Prison Debate League. Maine DOC will debate Harvard on the Paycheck Fairness Act on Tuesday, April 18 at 1 pm eastern, and Wake Forest on abolishing life without parole on Tuesday, April 25 at 1 pm eastern. Register to attend the virtual events here.

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, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.

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Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.