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’s what you need to know.

  • Read our Q&A with Donnie Veal, a soon-to-be graduate from University of California Santa Cruz. Veal talks about the process of being hired as the program coordinator for a support program for formerly incarcerated students like himself.
  • Follow Alisha Kaluhiokalani’s higher education journey that started with a Hawaiian language class in prison, co-published with Honolulu Civil Beat. Offering Hawaiian studies in prison is a natural extension of Windward CC’s mission as a Native Hawaiian-serving institution, said Chancellor Ardis Eschenberg.
  • The Education Department published a new report earlier this month on what colleges should do to best support formerly incarcerated students. Recommendations include removing questions about criminal history on admissions applications and providing technology training opportunities.
  • ICYMI: Prison technology provides a lifeline – until it doesn’t. Read Charlotte’s essay on what happens when prison technology breaks, co-published with Slate.

‘Keep moving through adversity’

Donnie Veal, 51, doesn’t fit the profile of a typical student at University of California Santa Cruz. In fact, he served more time in prison than many undergraduates have been alive.

Veal has had to get used to his professors questioning whether he’s a student and his classmates mistaking him for the professor or a college staff member. “Sometimes people don’t know how to approach,” he said. “Students will talk to me as if I have some type of power over them or whatever. And it’s just like, ‘Nah, we’re in the same boat. I’m trying to figure this out, just like you.’”

But that confusion will soon be cleared up as Veal graduates with a degree in sociology from UC Santa Cruz in June and starts a new job at Cabrillo College. He’ll be the program coordinator of Rising Scholars, a support program for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students. His life experience was why he was hired for the job, he said. Veal spent 23 years in prison, and got out in 2019.

Colleges are well placed to hire formerly incarcerated graduates like Veal, Rebecca Villarreal and Basia Skudrzyk argue in a recent op-ed. As some of the largest employers across the country, colleges and universities can provide job opportunities to formerly incarcerated students in addition to educating them. For example, UConn Health, the medical system under University of Connecticut, has committed to filling 5% of its entry level positions over the next three years with formerly incarcerated people.

“They have a unique capacity not only to educate individuals currently in the criminal justice system but also to tap a new source of talent to enrich their community,” Villarreal, of Jobs for the Future, and Skudzyk, of Prison to Professionals, write.

We sat down with Veal to talk about his educational journey from prison to college, the expertise that formerly incarcerated people bring to higher education, and what’s top of mind as he graduates and transitions into his new job. (Veal’s responses have been lightly edited for clarity.)

How did your education journey in prison get started?

I started taking some correspondence courses with Coastline [Community College] somewhere around 2010. I initially started just to give myself something to do. But I really didn’t get that college thing ignited inside of me until I took a public speaking course from Hartnell College. I researched the topic of recidivism because I didn’t want to come back to prison once I got out. And in the process of my research, I learned that the higher I go in education, the less chance I have of coming back to prison.

Can you talk about your transition to community college?

When I first started doing correspondence courses, I was in Salinas Valley State Prison. Then Hartnell started sending professors in. Once they started doing that, I was trying to burn the candle at both ends, taking correspondence courses with Coastline and taking in-person courses with Hartnell, just trying to expedite the process, getting as many units as I could to get myself closer to that associate’s. And while I was in the middle of school, my appeal was granted. I was released from prison. My brother offered me a proposition. He said, ‘Look, I’ll give you a place to live. I provide you with food. The only thing I want you to do is go to school.’

I was thinking I needed to get some form of degree ASAP to help me in the world. I left Salinas Valley State Prison on October 11, 2019. I enrolled in Cabrillo in January 2020. And then we were on COVID lockdown so everything went online.

What was it like being on a college campus?

As I was in Cabrillo and going to school, adjusting to going from a level-four prison institution to a college campus, everything that had been hardwired in me in prison — don’t go in crowds, or if you’re in a crowd, watch people’s hands — didn’t apply. I had to consciously remind myself, ‘You’re okay. You don’t have to put your back to the wall.’ I still have to catch myself sometimes.

In prison, if you violated my personal space, you would get a reaction and your reaction would determine how far we went from there. But in a college setting, I have to remember that people aren’t violating personal space because they’re trying to test you, they are simply oblivious. So I can’t be giving people death stares every time they bump into me.

University of California Santa Cruz (Maddison Hwang/Open Campus)

Can you talk about the transition from Cabrillo to UC Santa Cruz?

When I came to UC Santa Cruz, I felt a little lost, I’m not gonna lie. I was blown away by just the sheer size of this place. There are no flat surfaces at UC Santa Cruz. Everything is hilly. You cannot see across the campus to any building, unless you’re right next to it. It was very overwhelming, it would have been very easy for me to become isolated here. As an older reentry student, once we set our sights on something, we still tend to keep moving through adversity. But there were some mental challenges and trying to figure out if I belonged at the UC system. Cabrillo College was more hands-on, you can always talk to somebody anytime you need to — whereas here, you make a career center appointment and it’s like two months away.

What work are you doing with Underground Scholars at UC Santa Cruz and how are you supporting other system-impacted students?

The Underground Scholars program really promotes hiring and dealing with people from within. That’s why their student and staff positions are filled by people that have been justice-impacted. So when the director Joshua Solis found me and listened to my story, he was like, ‘Yo, bro, we have a spot for you.’

I started working with policy analysis and then they offered me another position as the outreach coordinator. With my story, it’s a lot easier for me to pull people into our college system than it would be for anybody else. Because I know how to walk the walk. I have examples of these trials by fire and coming out the other end.

++ Read the full interview with Donnie Veal.

++ Related coverage: Formerly incarcerated job seekers have to decide whether or not to share the job training and education credentials they earned in prison — what sociologist Sadé Lindsay calls “the prison credential dilemma.”

Reclaiming culture

Alisha Kaluhiokalani jumps off of the concrete jetty at Walls, on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. (Charlotte West/Open Campus)

I’ve never had anyone jump into the ocean in the middle of our interview before.

“Can you hold this?” Alisha Kaluhiokalani asked as she handed me her purse and sandals. She perched on the edge of the concrete jetty at Walls, on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. A second later she leaped into the clear turquoise water below, momentarily obscured by a splash. She turned back and waved.

That spot is sacred to Alisha. It’s the place where, a decade ago, her family paddled out on surfboards to spread her father’s ashes. Her dad, Montgomery “Buttons” Kaluhiokalani, was one of the top young surfers in the United States during the 1970s. He died in November 2013, while Alisha was still incarcerated.

I first met Alisha last year after I came across a testimony she had submitted to the Hawaii Legislature in support of a bill expanding education and cultural programs for women in prison. We stayed in touch, and when I was on Maui on vacation last September, I wanted to meet up with her. There are cheap and frequent inner-island flights, so on a Friday morning I boarded a plane for a short 30-minute flight to Honolulu. (The aerial views alone made the trip worth it).

Aerial view of Honolulu on an inner-island flight from Maui in September 2022. (Charlotte West/Open Campus)\

What struck me about Alisha’s story was how a Hawaiian language class in prison eventually led her to pursue her bachelor’s in social work. It wasn’t a panacea – she went back to prison twice after she got out for the first time in 2005. But that first class gave her the confidence and ability to see herself as a student. That stuck with her.

There are nonprofits and community organizations offering cultural programming in prisons, but it’s relatively rare to see colleges doing that. Windward Community College is one of only two institutions in Hawaii offering formal degree programs in prisons, and the only one offering coursework specifically targeting Native Hawaiians, who are overrepresented in the state’s criminal justice system.

Chancellor Ardis Eschenberg told me she sees offering culturally-focused classes in prison as an extension of Windward’s mission as a Native Hawaiian-serving institution. Incarcerated men can pursue an associate’s in Hawaiian studies and women can take culturally-focused classes as part of a certificate in psycho-social developmental studies.

Up until now, Windward’s Pu‘uhonua program has been funded by a grant for Native Hawaiian-serving institutions, but that runs out later this year. I was interested in finding out more about it because it’s an example of how other types of funding can be used to support prison education. But it also points to some of the challenges of grant funding – it can be difficult to sustain these programs when the grant ends. Pell Grants coming back later this summer will help cover tuition, but there are other costs that Pell won’t cover.

Alisha Kaluhiokalani at Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Charlotte West/Open Campus)

Over the course of the day I spent with her, it became clear how much Alisha loves sharing her culture. She peppered our conversation with tidbits about Hawaiian history and impromptu language lessons. I learned that Hawaii had been a sovereign kingdom until 1893 when it was invaded by the U.S. troops and by 1898 it had been officially annexed by the United States. Much like in the boarding school system on the mainland, the use of Hawaiian as a medium of instruction in public schools was outlawed.

Alisha, in a sense, took the opportunity to reclaim her culture by learning her language.

When Alisha dropped me off at the Bishop Museum, which focuses on Hawaii’s natural and cultural history, at the end of our visit last fall, she waved through the window of her blue pickup.

“Make sure you learn about us,” she said.

++ Read the full story (which we co-published with Honolulu Civil Beat).

News & views

As California closes three more prisons and downsizes six others, some prisoners are worried about the future of their education, Adam Echelman writes for our partner, CalMatters. For more than 1,500 prisoners who attend college in these closing facilities, closures mean they could transfer to a new prison where the courses may not line up. And as the prisons close down, at least three community colleges stand to lose more than 10 percent of their student enrollment, collectively.

++ Related coverage: The closure of the Washington State Reformatory, a century-old prison near Seattle, in 2021 disrupted the college education of around 50 students, most of whom have been unable to continue their education.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed $360.6 million in his revised state budget to demolish an 110,000 square foot warehouse currently used by the Prison Industry Authority and remodel it into a new education and vocational center at San Quentin State Prison, the oldest prison in California. In March, Newsom announced that the prison, which currently houses death row, will be transformed into a rehabilitative facility focused on education and training by 2025. People on death row will eventually be transferred to other prisons across the state.

A man in a Delaware prison who tried to boycott the use of prison tablets has been stripped of his prison job and confined to a two-person cell for 22.5 hours per day, Xerxes Wilson reported for the Delaware News Journal in April. David Holloman organized fellow prisoners to boycott the tablets, he told Wilson. He also filed a lawsuit in federal court. “It boils down to a consumer complaint,” Holloman said. “I was stripped of everything…I am being punished and retaliated against for exercising my First Amendment rights.”

++ Related coverage: Inside the frustrating, error-ridden, expensive world of prison messaging.

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.

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