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:

  • Kathy Tyler, an 87-year-old woman who has spent almost 46 years as a resident of the Iowa Department of Corrections, is currently taking classes through Grinnell College’s Liberal Arts in Prison Program. “Why am I still taking college classes at the age of 87?” she said. “What would you want me to do, sit around and play cards?”
  • The Seattle Times published a version of our story on Pell Grant implementation in Washington. The state has delayed its broad implementation of the federal aid 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 the grants next month.
  • We published an FAQ on Pell Grants for incarcerated students drawing on questions from our College Inside readers.
  • In Mississippi, colleges and universities across the state are working with the state corrections departments, sheriffs and wardens to set up what are, for many prisons, the first accredited college classes that have been offered in decades, writes Molly Minta for our partner Mississippi Today.

“What would you want me to do, sit around and play cards?”

This “as told to” essay has been lightly edited for clarity.

My name is Mary Kathleen Tyler, I am 87 years old. I was born on Dec. 6, 1935. I am entering my 46th year of incarceration on a charge of first-degree murder handed down in the fall of 1977 for the killing of my ex-husband after he had an affair. I don’t mind talking about that; people are always curious why we are here.

I entered the correction system in 1977. My first encounter with prison education was in 1979 at the Iowa State Reformatory for Women in Rockwell City. Then we had about 60 people. Today we have about 700 women.

The population of women has grown because they have increased sentences and they put mandatory sentences on some serious crimes. And governors like Robert Ray, who served from 1969-1983, used to do a lot of commutations. (He was a true statesman, and a Republican as they ought to be. I knew him when I was a court reporter and he was a practicing lawyer. Until his death, he continued to come and see me and always remained my friend in spite of my incarceration.)

But there’s only been one woman commuted in all the time that I have been in prison. We’re getting a little crowded in here.

When I came to prison, it was so different. Rockville City was a country prison. As a result of that, we were really treated individually. I’d go to the office, and they would give me cinnamon rolls. Of course, the prison was small then. And in those days, the short termers – but not the lifers – would be able to go out on furlough for work or education.

The prison also farmed out land they owned to local farmers. The finance director managed to use the money from the land they leased to pay us for taking college courses, $.46 an hour. And then we had the Pell Grant, and I seized every opportunity. We could also order as many correspondence college courses as we wanted and I enrolled in two from the University of Iowa as well.

In 1982, the reformatory was shut down and we were moved to the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, 20 miles from Des Moines. Today it’s still the state’s only prison for women. I continued to take and accumulate every course that was offered. Our extraordinarily helpful teacher discovered that the University of Iowa offered a scholarship for each course attempted if we funded the first course and got a B or better.

Des Moines Area Community College took over the college program, which continued until the Pell Grant ceased in 1994. I earned an associate from Des Moines in 1990, and two bachelor’s degrees from University of Iowa and Indiana University.

Through research, I found that California State University Dominguez Hills offered a master’s in humanities. I started that program via correspondence. A thesis was part of the requirement and I wrote mine which I called “Touchstones” addressing the characters that support and protect the tragic characters in four Shakespeare plays. I am the only one, I believe, in the history of Iowa Corrections Institution for Women that has acquired a master’s degree while in prison.

There is always somebody that comes along that’s just a pure gem in your life. And we have a wonderful GED teacher here who is that for me. She facilitated the printing of my master’s thesis. And the paper it has to be on is very expensive and all that razzmatazz. But my thesis will be archived at the California State University forever.

I was able to pay for my master’s because of my prison job. Starting in 1983, I was hired for about 30 years to transcribe administrative law hearings for the state of Iowa which were sent to me via CD or on tape. For the first several years it was $.46 cents an hour, then about 10 years at $1.00 and the last five at $5.00 because the warden thought I deserved that for my professional work. I’m retired now, but I continue to maintain my license after all these years. Our GED instructor helps me get the continuing education classes that are required to maintain that license.

Left: Kathy Tyler, 87, has hardly stopped taking college classes since she was incarcerated in 1977. Right: A pastel by Kathy Tyler.

Before prison, I was a certified shorthand reporter in the Iowa court system for 20 years. I acquired that license in 1957 following my graduation in court reporting from the American Institute of Business. Needless to say, the courtroom was an education in and of itself.

Following my bachelor’s and the master’s I took a long hiatus from education here at Mitchellville. I myself was not affected when the Pell Grant ceased because I was paying for my classes, but I did not hear a lot of complaints. I don’t think our low numbers in college is a lack of opportunity. But motivation is so very much a part of doing a college course. And then of course we have some people who have very long terms in prison, maybe some think that it’s simply not worthwhile. And then, our demographic is not the same as the general population. We have people who have not had parents who have emphasized the necessity of education.

But I’m just crazy for education. We’re around each other all the time, so others benefit from our being smart and our being ambitious and our being encouraging. And staff benefits from that. The whole system benefits from that because people that are involved in educational programs are not making trouble in the prison. I’m sure if anybody did a study of people in education compared to people who were not, you would find that the majority of disciplinary infractions were people with idle time on their hands.

I remember overhearing a correctional officer call a woman who was taking a certified nurse assistant certificate an “inmate.” She let him know in no uncertain terms was that her title. She was a “nurse.” I never forgot the value of that – that she now self-identified as something far more recognized than an inmate and insisted on that recognition.

Last summer, Grinnell College blessed our prison with their program. While they do not offer a degree, you can take up to 60 credits. If you investigate you will find that Grinnell is one of the very best undergraduate schools in the nation. They supply us with everything, note cards, notebooks etc. and best of all their Ph.D. professors all coming on grounds and teaching our classes.

This gives me an opportunity to interact with some of the premier professors in the country. In the fall, I took a social justice course from Alexander McClean, an internationally recognized law professor from Britain who has organized schools for prisoners around the world. And my jazz course last summer was taught by Dr. Mark Laver, a musicologist. How many musicologists do you know?

They offer four more classes every semester, but at my age I only choose one. All in all, I think I have about 240 credit hours and something like a 3.90 grade point average.

Why am I still taking college classes at the age of 87? What would you want me to do, sit around and play cards? So far I’ve got my mind and I’ve got my health. You know, I’m not just gonna sit around and not do anything. I did worry about taking a slot at Grinnell College that other women might use, but that is not so.

I also have the piano. I practice the piano every day and I teach the piano to seven students. I like to do that because I like to give of myself. I also paint pastels. I am also a practicing Roman Catholic, a gift from my Irish-Catholic mother. My faith has helped sustain me always in this journey.

My favorite quotes are from Romeo, “Then I defy thee stars!” And Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gently into the good night. Rage, rage against the dying light.”

I want to “…rage against the dying light.” There are far too many who sit around here and sleep their life away and miss so much. Look at it this way: Who would you rather keep company with?

The person I keep company with most in life is myself. I find that “self” far more dynamic, interesting, challenging, and, yes “adorable” – there I said it – than the sleeper who would bore the hell out of me.


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What the Pell is going on?

Earlier this month, we did a deep dive into the return of Pell in Washington state. Here’s what’s happening elsewhere:

Wisconsin
In Wisconsin, the corrections department is currently reviewing applications from interested colleges and universities and plans to make selections by the end of the month. There’s not enough time to go through accreditation, recruit and register students, fill out financial aid applications and everything else to make a new program student ready by fall, education director Ben Jones wrote in an email. As a result, he does not anticipate any new programs starting by the fall. Currently, 400 incarcerated students are enrolled in postsecondary education in Wisconsin out of a prison population of around 21,000.

Arizona
Arizona will be prioritizing distance learning programs “because of the ability to provide programming to a much greater audience with minimal impact on prison operations,” a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry, wrote in an email. They are still considering face-to-face programs.

The emphasis on college via technology has allowed the state to offer higher education in nearly half of Arizona’s prisons. Currently 700 Pell-funded incarcerated students are enrolled in college programs statewide.

California
Pell won’t immediately make much of an impact for college programs in California because of the strong presence of community colleges in the prison system, which is primarily funded through state financial aid. “Long term, Pell will give us the ability to continue to expand and create more BA pathways,” said Rebecca Silbert, senior director for Rising Scholars at the Foundation for California Community Colleges. “But for us, the impact of July 1 is minimal.”

The Bureau of Prisons
The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) does not have plans to institute an agency-wide partnership with an academic institution because it is unlikely they would be able to provide services to the entire federal prison system, a BOP spokesperson wrote in an email.

Individual colleges may reach out to specific BOP sites and work with local staff to determine what specific security restrictions might be in place that would affect academic instruction (e.g., certain science lab requirements, the chemicals used within them, and internet technology.)

Since 2016, a total of 206 associate Degrees, 12 bachelor’s degrees, and 13 certificates have been awarded to students incarcerated in the federal system. Currently the BOP has 426 students enrolled at 15 sites.

++ Related: Read about what’s happening with Pell reinstatement in Pennsylvania and Mississippi.

News & views

new fact sheet about Second Chance Pell from the Vera Institute found that 40,000 students participated in postsecondary education and earned 12,000 credentials between 2016 and 2022. Racial and gender disparities continue to exist in both enrollment and completion, particularly among Hispanic students.

new analysis from the Student Borrower Protection Center found a 100 percent default rate for student loan borrowers enrolled in higher education in prison programs operating within a number of correctional facilities on the east coast. The study also found that President Biden’s student loan cancellation plan would be particularly beneficial to these incarcerated borrowers—94 percent of whom would see their debts totally erased under the plan. ++Related: What student loan forgiveness would mean for one incarcerated borrower.

Sometimes incarcerated people have to make a choice between communicating with loved ones, or buying basic hygiene items. College Inside contributor Lyle May breaks down the costs of communicating on prison tablets for people who earn less than $1 a day in the North Carolina prison system. “Many people in prison lack a high school education or GED, have learning disabilities, or are illiterate,” Lyle writes for Slate. “These people struggle most with the tablets and ultimately end up paying more as they puzzle out how to use the apps.” ++Related: “Prison messaging apps are a lifeline—until they break.”

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.