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:

  • Washington State has delayed its broad implementation of Pell Grants for incarcerated students until July 2024, pointing to the challenges that many states are facing as 700,000 people in prison once again become eligible for federal financial aid next month.
  • Emma Folts looks at the state of Pell Grants in Pennsylvania prisons for our partner PublicSource.
  • We want to hear from you! What’s the status of Pell in your state? Reply to this email or contact charlotte@opencampusmedia.org.
  • ICYMI: Donnie Veal is a formerly incarcerated student at the University of California Santa Cruz. Read this Q&A about his journey from prison to college and why colleges should hire formerly incarcerated graduates.

A look at education inside Washington prisons

This week we’re zooming in on one state — Washington — to show what’s at stake as Pell funding for incarcerated students returns next month. A look at the Evergreen State demonstrates just how complicated the new prison education landscape can be.

That’s something Juan Hernandez knows all too well. Over the last five years he has been piecing together his education one class at a time, starting at the Washington State Reformatory. “Starting school is what helped me turn my life around,” Hernandez said. “The classroom is where I finally found my voice and felt something close to freedom.”

Since getting on a waiting list for college after he transferred to another facility in 2020, he’s been offered only four classes. He now needs just one more class to finish his associate’s: a math course that he hopes to finish this fall.

He felt like another opportunity was opening when he learned that Pell funding would once again be available to incarcerated people this July for the first time in 30 years.

“I started to dream of going on to earn a bachelor’s,” he said.

But when word trickled in that Pell-funded prison education in Washington state wouldn’t be implemented until July 2024, “it felt like a gut punch.”

Hernandez has just four years left on a 20-year sentence. “Things in prison always take longer,” he said. “At this point, I don’t think a program will start up in time for me to get a BA.”

Incarcerated students in Washington like Hernandez are once again eligible for Pell Grants starting next month, but it will likely take a year before most people in the state can take advantage of the federal aid. Nationally, there are around 700,000 people in prison who will be eligible as of July 1, according to the federal Education Department.

Washington is not unique as it struggles to figure out how to use Pell dollars to expand access to higher education to the 13,000 people confined in its state prisons. Corrections officials, many of whom have limited experience with higher education, are entering into new territory as they take on the role of approving and overseeing Pell-eligible prison education programs.

As this look at Washington shows, the return of Pell brings welcome funding streams but also involves new actors with limited experience with prison education. Corrections officials have to sort out new policies and procedures, state laws have to be amended, and colleges have to figure out what kind of programs they want to offer and whether students are even interested in them. Long-standing programs that have previously operated independently also have to find their new place in all of this.

As we’ve previously reported, expanded Pell eligibility on July 1 doesn’t mean everyone in prison will immediately have access to higher education. And for students like Hernandez who are hoping to complete their education before they get out, delays can have real consequences.

‘Just a little bit longer’

The Washington State Reformatory shut down in October 2021. The closure interrupted the education of 50 incarcerated students who were transferred to other state prisons. Photo: Charlotte West/Open Campus

Whether or not a college decides to offer a prison education program depends on a number of factors ranging from faculty interest to geographic proximity to facilities. Some colleges have run prison education programs for years, while others don’t have any experience at all. Even programs that have been operating for decades will have to adjust to the new federal rules for Pell funding.

That’s a factor the Washington State Department of Corrections took into consideration when they thought about how to roll out new programs. “We have a lot of existing programs now running. But there are facilities where this will be brand new and we want to be mindful of the student experience,” said Kristen Morgan, education services administrator for the department.

The state pushed back implementing more Pell programs for a year because it has to wait for the legislature to make a change in how prison education is paid for. (The state’s three Second Chance Pell sites will continue to operate in the interim.)

“I know folks are waiting but we need just a little bit longer to get things in place,” including assessing technology needs, Morgan said.

Open Campus requested Washington’s list of colleges interested in receiving priority consideration for Pell program approval. Nine community colleges, all of which are currently operating in or have previously offered courses in state prisons, submitted requests at the end of March. Seattle Central College, for example, noted it was interested in prison education because one-third of people leaving Washington prisons each year are released within a 2-mile radius of its Capitol Hill campus.

One-third of people leaving Washington prisons each year are released within a 2-mile radius of Seattle Central College’s Capitol Hill campus near downtown Seattle.

The college previously operated as a Second Chance Pell site in partnership with the nonprofit University Beyond Bars, which ended its program in 2021. Seattle Central proposed using Pell funding to allow students to enroll in its self-paced, print-based degree programs offered via correspondence. They would target students who would otherwise lack access to education programs or those on a waitlist.

The Second Chance Pell pilot program was launched in 2016 under the Obama administration in order to pave the way for broader access to Pell Grants for people in prison. Incarcerated students’ eligibility for federal financial aid was eliminated with the 1994 crime bill. Around 200 colleges around the country were selected to offer Pell-eligible programs since the program started.

Expanding bachelor’s programs

While the community colleges already have a strong presence in prisons, Morgan said the state is looking at ways to use Pell funding to expand access to bachelor’s programs. Through its contract with the state community college system, the department currently offers 8 direct transfer degrees, which offer pathways to a four-year college, and 14 associate’s of applied science. In 2022, 461 incarcerated students in Washington earned postsecondary associate degrees and certificates.

People incarcerated at the women’s prison in Gig Harbor can pursue a bachelor’s through the University of Puget Sound and the nonprofit Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, also known as FEPPS. Currently the only opportunity to earn a four-year degree in men’s prisons is a bachelor’s of applied science at Coyote Ridge in eastern Washington.

Five four-year institutions, including two private colleges, submitted requests for consideration. Many of those focused on creating transfer programs in collaboration with community colleges. Western Washington University, for instance, proposed a bachelor of arts in multidisciplinary studies with a focus on culture and communication at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, building on a two-year associate’s transfer pathway in partnership with Peninsula College. The only college in eastern Washington that expressed interest was Whitman College.

The public institution with the most experience operating prison education programs is Evergreen State College in Olympia. In 2022, the legislature allocated $600,000 to the college to “develop and expand” its prison education programs. The college has offered for-credit classes at a male youth prison since 1996. It also operates the Sustainability in Prisons Project, which includes both non-credit and credit-bearing education offered on a variety of science and sustainability topics.

In January 2023, Evergreen’s Board of Trustees approved a resolution authorizing the establishment of a prison education program. In addition, over 125 faculty, staff, and administrators have signed a letter supporting expansion of education and reentry services for currently and previously incarcerated students.

Evergreen also expressed interest in developing bachelor’s degree pathways for incarcerated students, starting with two men’s prisons. However, given the new timeline for Pell implementation, the college will focus on developing both non-credit courses or workshops and courses for college credit without Pell funding during the 2023-2024 academic year, spokesperson Kelly Von Holtz said.

The college noted that its “upside-down degree” would serve incarcerated students well because it allows students who have earned applied associate’s degrees to transfer their credits and earn a bachelor’s degree. In many cases, four-year colleges will not count technical courses towards their degree. Evergreen’s program requires students to take at least 32 credits of liberal arts coursework unrelated to their technical degree.

University of Washington Tacoma was one of five four-year colleges in Washington that expressed interest in offering a Pell-funded prison education program. Photo: Shutterstock.

University of Washington Tacoma submitted a broader proposal, which included forming a development team that would work on creating its prison education program with the intent of filling in gaps and avoiding duplicating programs already provided by other colleges. UW Tacoma would initially focus on the five prisons within an hour driving distance from its campus. Much of the work would be led by several formerly incarcerated faculty.

Tanya Erzen, a professor at Puget Sound and FEPPS faculty director, said that while she’s glad that Pell will expand access, she’s concerned that some of the institutions that are now wanting to develop programs had previously expressed disinterest in prison education. “Why are you proposing a program in the prison now? Because your enrollments on campus are dipping?” she said.

She also wondered whether colleges had talked to incarcerated students about if they were even interested in the degrees that are being proposed. “From the beginning, a higher education program in prison should be going inside and asking students questions and fostering and supporting existing student leadership inside as co-creators of the program,” Erzen said.

A unique prison ecosystem

A unique aspect of the prison education ecosystem in Washington is the number of nonprofits and community-based organizations operating programs, including FEPPS. While the University of Puget Sound can apply for Pell as an eligible prison education program on behalf of the nonprofit, it’s less clear what might happen to other programs such as the Black Prisoners Caucus’s T.E.A.C.H. program. That program has until recently used private funding to pay for classes open to all prisoners, regardless of sentence, in three men’s prisons. The group recently lost its outside sponsoring organization.

Kimonti Carter, who founded the T.E.A.C.H. program at Clallam Bay Corrections Center in 2013, said that in its efforts to streamline education programs, the department of corrections is creating more restrictions that have the potential to suffocate privately-funded, prisoner-led programs.

“Ultimately, the DOC gets to determine who gets what in areas where we already have space,” said Carter, who was released in 2022. “The question is: are they going to ultimately create a reason to take that space from us?”

Morgan said that there is no intention to push out programs like T.E.A.C.H. or to only offer Pell-eligible programs. She did say that space is always a consideration as they make room for four-year programs. “We just don’t know how many schools are going in,” she said.

Darrell Jackson, T.E.A.C.H. co-chair at the Washington Corrections Center, wonders how the department will engage currently and formerly incarcerated students in its implementation of Pell. Like Erzen, the Puget Sound professor, he’s concerned that students’ options will be limited to only what the department of corrections wants to offer, not what students actually want.

“With regards to Pell, my feelings are mixed,” Jackson said. “On one hand, opening access to funding is great and a step in the right direction, but I believe the process of education should always be liberatory.”

As for Hernandez, he’s anxious to start a bachelor’s program but he’s mindful that it’s better to do it right than do it quickly: “I think the slow pace of two-year degrees is mainly from poor design and few safeguards. So I hope as new programs roll out they take the time to make sure they’re quality.”

Tomas Keen is an incarcerated writer from Washington State. His work has been featured in Inquest, The News Tribune, and the Economist. He can be contacted on Securus or at tomaskeen310445@gmail.com. Read more of his work for Open Campus.

Related coverage:

++ When the Washington State Reformatory shut down in 2021, around 50 students studying in the University Beyond Bars program were transferred all over the state. Few of those students have been able to continue their education.

++ 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.

++ Late last fall, about 100 people in Pennsylvania state prisons – nearly all men – were enrolled in college programs, while about 200 were waitlisted. While several colleges in the state are set to operate programs this fall, others will likely crop up over the next year. Some colleges may not offer programs at all. “This will be a work in progress,” a Department of Corrections spokesperson told our partner PublicSource. Read Emma Folts’ coverage of Pell in Pennsylvania.

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.