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:

  • Charlotte West talks to Napoleon Wells, a clinical psychologist who works as an anxiety and trauma disorder specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs. “If someone acts out in the classroom, it’s not them being resistant to being educated. It’s evidence of what their current emotional functioning is,” Wells said. “Speak to the fact that you understand that their mental health and wellbeing is impacting how they’re going to perform.”
  • If you are a current or former educator working with GED programs, we want to talk to you about how issues like waitlists and staff shortages potentially impact incarcerated students’ ability to access college programs. Reach out here.
  • Last month, we published a story focusing on “Who Would Believe a Prisoner?”, a history book about the Indiana Women’s Prison written by incarcerated scholars. The book came out yesterday and is now available for purchase.
  • ICYMI: A class at Georgetown University and University of California-Santa Cruz focused on wrongful convictions combines criminal investigation and narrative storytelling. Read the story here.

Healing, mental health, and education in prison

Charlotte West talks to Napoleon Wells, a clinical psychologist who works as an anxiety and trauma disorder specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs. He primarily treats veterans who are dealing with combat trauma, but his work has also focused on the impact of trauma in classroom and work spaces experienced by BIPOC communities. He talks about how trauma impacts incarcerated students’ ability to learn and function in a classroom, but also how education itself can be healing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Charlotte West: What would you say is the relationship between trauma and the ability to get to a point where you can take advantage of opportunities such as higher education in prison?

Napoleon Wells: I would suggest that trauma is a kind of emotional backpack that makes it difficult to access almost any options, because of the number of areas emotionally that trauma impacts. People [experiencing trauma] are hyper vigilant. They’re not sleeping well. …They’re socially avoidant, they’re depressed, very often experiencing panic. You’re talking about folks who truly aren’t, because of their symptoms, going to be able to have conversations about education. They’re not going to be able to sit comfortably in the classroom, they’re going to have difficulty advocating for themselves with institutions and with professors, they’re going to have difficulty focusing on information, on completing assignments.

I’ve heard from a lot of folks inside that the prison environment itself is inherently traumatic, requiring hyper vigilance. So even if you don’t have a diagnosis of PTSD, you’re still in an environment that lends itself to trauma. What advice do you have for educators who are going into that environment in terms of how they can best serve their students?

I will give educators the same advice that I would give a therapist who was about to start working with individuals who were traumatized. That would be to absolutely make room and embrace the fact that trauma is present. Even if you have someone whom you’re serving who hasn’t developed PTSD, chances are they have some of the symptoms, it’s very likely just undiagnosed. If they’ve been incarcerated long enough, because of the kind of experiences they’re going to have in prison, I would suggest that it’s almost unavoidable.

If someone acts out in the classroom, it’s not them being resistant to being educated. It’s evidence of their current emotional functioning. Speak to the fact that you understand that their mental health and wellbeing is impacting how they’re going to perform. Ask about it. This is a population that’s not going to say, ‘I feel weak. I’m at my worst’, because you’re going to have instances where that’s going to be used against them in other settings. Try to make time to do a check in with all of your students, ‘How are you feeling, and what parts of this were stressful to you? Anything that I can do to make you feel more comfortable? Do I need to bring mental health into this space in order to help me see to it that you can thrive in this setting?’

As much as possible, I would suggest making as much room as you can to show as much comfort as you can with it, and be prepared to receive feedback from those who are incarcerated.

What advice do you have in the sense that professors are not psychologists, and a lot of the time the mental health resources that are available in the prison setting are relatively limited. So recognizing that a professor isn’t there to provide therapy, what are the things that they can do that might help open up those conversations?

I tell folks to work to the end of their tether. So don’t try to do what I do necessarily, but ask the question, ‘How is your functioning? Do you need mental health involved?

I think you have to be prepared to, if not necessarily be a superhero, be prepared to be an advocate, because you’re trying to do a job. And trauma is going to impact your job. It’s going to impact those who you serve, and their ability to absorb information. I would say ‘Don’t be a therapist, but do be present.’ And a part of being present is asking the question and then determining what the end of your tether is. ‘I can’t solve this problem. But let me take it as far as I can.’ And even the system might not have the resources. Push the issue.

There are several programs that focus specifically on therapeutic and trauma-informed programs for the 18-24 year old population in prison and specific housing units, such as the Vera Institute’s Restoring Promise program, that pair young people with mentors. Can you talk a little bit about the benefits of targeting that younger population, both with more mental health services, but also with higher education opportunities?

We know that chronologically, 18 to 24, you’re considered an adult, but you’re not done growing. It’s a critical age period. What is necessary there is to determine what we going to expose someone to who is 18 that is going to aid them with their healthy development. Education can be one thing. Having healthy mentors, which they haven’t necessarily had, would be another.

Where mental health is concerned, my concern with incarceration and mental health is that it has always been designed to help people endure. You’re going to be behind bars – ‘Let me help you deal with what you feel about this,’ as opposed to preparing people for being a better developed version of themselves and then coming back into contact with their life outside.

But what I would like to see happen, and I would be more than happy to be involved with it, is an entire system redesign of how we practice mental health within incarcerated spaces. I think we have to go about not only addressing mental health for enduring, but also think about how to go about in the same way we do outside in our communities, tailoring it to the age group that we’re working with.

What do you see as the role of education in addressing some of the mental health issues that people might have? A lot of people have told me that the thing that higher education in prison did for them was give them the ability to see themselves in another light.

It serves exactly that role. People who are struggling with mental health symptoms very often have to have an anchor in their life, whether it be their family system, whether it be their work system, [or] something like education.

If an individual can find themselves successful in learning things, moving toward a degree, moving toward a career, you’re kind of having these building blocks for improved function and emotion. That allows for people to better manage their symptoms on a day-to-day basis. If I know I feel less anxious in the classroom, the classroom becomes a safe space. And so I develop a routine for functioning there that I carry outside of the classroom. If I develop success in my understanding, and I feel affirmed when I’m in the classroom, I can build my affirmations there – Yes, I am intelligent. Yes, I can understand.

It’s ideal, really, for people learning how they think, how they understand, building success, and then taking that skill set, tucking that into their tool belt and carrying it with them outside of the classroom.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I want, as much as possible, for us to make education not only something that is available to our incarcerated family and kinfolk, but also as a healing resource in the same way we have mental health available. I don’t want to continue to see our family just enduring.

Follow Dr. Napoleon Wells on Instagram.

Related coverage:

++ Read Khalil A. Scott’sfirst-person essay about why young people need more access to higher education in prison.

++ Nick Hacheney and Tomas Keen also address the issue of trauma in their guide for prison educators.

News & views

The board of Blue Mountain Community College in Oregon voted to end the adult basic education and GED programs it offers in three state prisons in the eastern part of the state, eliminating 17 staff and faculty positions. The current contract between the college and corrections department expires June 30. Faculty at the college expressed concern that a lapse in GED education would reduce the number of people in prison who would be eligible for federal Pell Grants, which will return in July. “It’s now unclear who will provide education in an area that houses thousands of state prisoners,” wrote Antonio Sierra for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey has included more than $10 million in her proposed budget to bolster education in prison and reentry services. Her spending proposal includes funds for the “School of Reentry” at the Boston Pre-Release Center and other education and mentoring programs. Much of the funding would pay for instructional programs on computer tablets, Deborah Baker reported for WBUR.

A new report from Ithaka S+R examines media review directives from all 50 states and the District of Columbia and explores how those policies could limit access to academic resources. “Security and Censorship” provides an overview of the national landscape of prison media policies and provides important context for issues such as self-censorship and technology in higher education in prison.

Jobs for the Future released a new report, Normalizing Opportunity: A Policy Agenda to Promote Economic Advancement for People With Criminal Records. The report highlights specific strategies designed to break down systemic barriers to the equitable economic advancement of all people with records, with an intentional focus on Black and Latinx communities.

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.

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, you can 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.

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