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:

  • Kwaneta Harris, who is incarcerated in Texas, writes about helping the young women who live next to her in solitary confinement learn how to read. This essay was co-published with Slate.
  • If you’re a formerly incarcerated borrower, we want to hear from you! Please take a moment to fill out this brief survey.
  • Check out our FAQ about the new rules for Pell Grants, which were restored in July. Please share with your incarcerated students!
  • A group of Democrats in Congress are calling on the Department of Education to improve outcomes for incarcerated borrowers. Their suggestions include creating a public FAQ webpage to address common questions and educating jail and prison administrators on student loan policies.
  • ICYMI: We talked to four lifers about what it was like when Pell Grants for people in prison were eliminated in 1994.

She’s in solitary confinement. She still tries to teach her neighbors how to read.

This week we’re featuring an essay by Kwaneta Harris, a writer who has spent more than 7 years in solitary confinement in Texas. I’ve read some of her other work on prison labor and what it’s like to be incarcerated in 129° heat without air conditioning, so I was excited to hear what she had to say about education. She shares the stories of young women who entered the Texas prison system as juveniles and illuminates how they struggle with basic literacy. She stands at the vent in her cell — where she spends as much as 22 hours a day — and reads to her young neighbors.

The women at Lane Murray, Kwaneta’s housing unit, have on average a 7th grade education, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. It raises some important questions: Even though federal law guarantees an education to incarcerated students 21 and under, how is that education actually delivered, if at all? What kind of support do students receive if they need help with basic literacy? Are students with disabilities receiving accommodations? And, as college programs start to expand with the restoration of Pell eligibility last month, are corrections departments also investing in increasing access to adult basic and secondary education?

While we’re focusing on Texas, this is an issue across the country. Last month, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections opted not to reapply for more than $2 million in state educational grants that support prison programs, according to the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting. Those state grants covered 80% of the DOC’s expenses for educational programs at a high school level or below.

Last year, Sean Addie, the director of correctional education for the federal Education Department, said that many states leave federal funding for secondary education, such as Perkins dollars, on the table. “[We] need to be thinking proactively about how we can get students who maybe are not yet ready for postsecondary education ready for…these new opportunities,” he said during a session at the National Conference for Higher Education in Prison in November.

This is an issue we’ll be looking at more in the upcoming months. If you have thoughts or expertise on secondary education in prison, I’d love to hear from you at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org.

— Charlotte West

++Related coverage: A federal civil rights probe found that the Minnesota Department of Corrections was denying incarcerated GED students with disabilities necessary accommodations.

++ Corrections departments should offer more higher education opportunities to incarcerated young adults, Khalil A. Scott writes.

‘I missed all the signs of a troubled reader’

“Whatcha doing?”

I ignore my 20-year-old neighbor.

She bangs on our shared vent with a cup.

“Hey, Ms. Detroit, whatcha doing?”

“The same thing I’ve been doing the last five times you asked me.”

She disturbs me nonstop, whether it’s singing aloud, screaming, yelling, arguing, or beating cups on her desk to accompany a rap. She gets on my nerves. All of this has turned me into the “get off my lawn” guy. This time was no exception. I answer, “Reading! Reading! Reading!”

Kwaneta Harris

“What’s it about?”

I sigh, “When I’m finished I will pass the newspaper to you, like always”.

I wasn’t always a curmudgeon. I’m just tired of witnessing the harms of isolation. It’s best for my emotional health not to get close to anyone.

Five minutes later: “Did you call me? Did I hear you laugh? What’s funny? What’s it about?” I rush to finish my newspaper and roll it up and slide it into a sock attached to a string and fish it to her. Shortly after, I notice the sock passing back by my window on its way to someone else. I’m seething. “Don’t ask me for nothing else. I give you something and you don’t even read it?’”

Reading has been my lifeline after seven years in solitary confinement. With my earplugs jammed in deep — sometimes too deep — I’ve read books, magazines, and newspapers and found respite amid tortuous conditions. That includes no air conditioning, TV, or recreation. Cold showers. Frequent water and power outages. An overrepresentation of people with mental illness.

The hole is like all trouble, easy to get into and hard to get out of. In male prisons, men are sometimes in the restricted housing unit because they have been identified as belonging to gangs. But that’s not often the case in female prisons. Women are assigned to live here for various reasons. It could be a consequence for behavior, like having phone sex with a partner; for violence, like assaulting staff members; or for rule violation, like having contraband (even if someone set you up with it). Sometimes, it’s outright discrimination: I’ve seen women get sent to the hole for speaking in an Indigenous language while talking to their parents on the phone. 

Many of the young women living in my pod in solitary are transfers from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. In this state, children as young as 14 can be charged as adults for certain serious offenses, and all 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors or felonies are considered adults. Most of them are youth of color. If these kids have a history of assault, solitary confinement is often their ultimate destination. [Editor’s note: In 2021, more than one-third of people in solitary confinement in Texas women’s prisons were 18-25, compared to about 10% of the total prison population in that age range, according to the Liman Center for Public Interest law at Yale University.]

Although incarcerated young people 21 and under are guaranteed an education under federal law, that doesn’t always happen in practice. Women in some restricted custody levels are given low priority for educational programming, while others aren’t allowed to participate at all.

Several days pass. A guard writes my young neighbor a disciplinary infraction. The 20-year-old asks me to file a grievance to get the case overturned. When I look at her paperwork, I realize that she doesn’t have more than a third-grade education.

I feel like shit. Immediately I’m flooded with flashbacks of other young women: The 23-year-old who always “forgot” her glasses, or the one who brushed off the chaplain when he asked her to read a Bible verse aloud. The incidents might seem unrelated, but these women were trying to distract from the truth. They struggled to read. I had missed all the signs.

Tameka, for instance, had been incarcerated since she was 14 but was in her late 20s when I met her. She once had a teacher tell her: “If you shut up, maybe you’ll learn to read.” She was so embarrassed she began fighting staff and writing escape letters in hope of being placed in solitary so she wouldn’t have to go to school anymore.

Plus, many of these girls who came into adult prisons as children have been criminalized and traumatized their entire lives, and when they get to prison, the trauma continues. Most also have mental health issues and learning disabilities. You can’t learn when you’re in survival mode.

In solitary confinement, ‘school,’ when it is provided, often consists of a packet of education materials dropped at your cell door. There are no teachers for us here. If there are, I’ve never seen or heard them. In response, the girls often rip the packets into small pieces and push them back under their doors. You can’t teach yourself from packets when you can’t even read the instructions. (Editor’s note: When we asked the Texas Department of Criminal Justice about this, they confirmed that students receive “individualized instruction packets,” but said that they have the option to work with a teacher.)

But you would be highly mistaken to conflate literacy with intelligence or even a desire to learn. In 2017, when 23-year-old Moriah discovered I was a nurse, she asked me to teach her the names of the major bones. I helped during rec time — we started at the toes and went up the body. Other girls started coming out and those who didn’t watched out their windows. We have some great artists who began sketching the skeleton. Eventually, everyone had a sketch in their cell, taped on the wall. Moriah was eventually released and is now a certified nursing assistant and home health aide. The craving for knowledge doesn’t stop at the prison gates.

Moriah is an example of how people learn in different ways. A peek inside her background reveals the common denominator in most women’s stories — poverty. Walking in her shoes is to live in dilapidated housing, breathe asthma-inducing air, reside in food deserts and self medicate to deal with it all.

And our one-size-fits-all approach to educating children doesn’t attempt to address these challenges. The Moriahs and Tamekas of underfunded schools have always been the convenient scapegoats of legislative budget cuts and victims of our non-existent social safety net. As if the solution for getting a high-quality education is to be born in an adequately funded zip code.

In the meantime, I can’t wait for the state of Texas. Now, I stand at the vent again reading aloud to the young women — smiling as I complain.

Kwaneta Harris is an incarcerated writer in solitary confinement in Texas focusing on the intersection of race, gender and place. She focuses on illuminating how different incarceration is for women. She is working on a book about youth transferred to adult solitary confinement.

Lewis Waters is an artist incarcerated at the US Penitentiary Hazelton in West Virginia. Follow him on Instagram.  

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 TwitterLinkedIn, or Instagram. 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.