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:

Takeaways from the National Conference for Higher Education in Prison

ATLANTA — “What’s next?”

That’s a question that looms large for many college graduates. 

But for those who earn their degrees inside, the traditional metrics of success don’t always apply. College graduates may continue to sit behind bars for years or even decades before they can enter the labor market, if at all. 

Maine and other states like Colorado are trying to tackle this issue through internships and employment opportunities that allow incarcerated students and graduates to put their professional knowledge and skills into practice — and in some cases, earn a living wage while doing so. 

Employment and professional training opportunities inside were a major theme at the 2023 National Conference for Higher Education in Prison, where 800 educators, administrators, students and alumni from dozens of prison education programs gathered in Atlanta, Georgia last week. 

“One of the things that’s missing inside of prisons is high-impact learning practices: internships, fellowships, apprenticeships, and work learning opportunities,” said Ved Price, executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, during the plenary session last Thursday. 


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Though the number of students enrolled in prison education programs is expected to grow over the next few years, there are currently few opportunities for students to continue to develop professionally after they earn a credential. 

He said that as the pandemic ushered in remote work more broadly and Zoom became nearly ubiquitous, the Alliance began to think about how that might apply in a carceral setting. As a result, they, along with other organizations such as Jobs for the Future and ed tech start-up Unlocked Labs, began a pilot partnership with the Maine Department of Corrections to hire incarcerated students and pay them free-world wages. The Alliance has two current fellows, Victoria Scott and Leo Hylton.

Some prison education programs are also looking at how they can incorporate experiential learning into their curriculum. In May, North Hennepin Community College in Minnesota graduated its first class of five incarcerated paralegals. The paralegal students had to complete an externship during their last semester as a graduation requirement, according to Maya Johnson of The Legal Revolution. 

The externship, through the Legal Revolution in-house law firm, focused on expungements and sealing the records of real clients. “Many of our paralegal students have successfully won cases and gotten expungements for justice-impacted individuals,” Johnson wrote in an email.

JD students enrolled at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law were also able to do an externship during the summer, the same time their outside classmates typically do clerkships and externships. Because they were still enrolled in classes, they had some internet and tech access. While the students were not paid for the externships, they did receive academic credit.

“Internships have always been valuable tools for gaining experience as an entry level professional, and incarcerated students are no different,” wrote Mary Fenske, paralegal program director, in an email. 

“Most importantly…these internships allowed the incarcerated students to give back to the community without any expectation of reward….That’s incredibly powerful stuff toward restorative justice.”

The case for living-wage jobs inside

Studies have shown that educating people in prison increases their ability to find a job after release and decreases the likelihood that they will come back to prison. In the same vein, allowing incarcerated people to earn a living wage is good for both the individual and society, said Randall Liberty, commissioner of the Maine DOC. People who don’t want to create opportunities that allow incarcerated individuals to become productive members of society are “dumb on public safety.”

It’s less expensive to educate and train someone than it is to incarcerate them, Liberty said.  

Having a job that pays market wages helps incarcerated people support themselves and their families. The way most people are released today does not set them up for successful reentry, Price said. “People do…15, 20, 30 years and then come home with 50 bucks.” 

Earning real money while incarcerated allows individuals to build savings to reestablish their lives, such as being able to pay a deposit to secure stable housing. Gaining relevant professional experience before they are released also helps individuals find better jobs. 

Over half of people in prison have “work assignments,” but those jobs often pay pennies, if anything at all, and don’t build marketable skills; instead, they are usually designed to help keep the prison running, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. In prison jobs, incarcerated workers usually have few protections compared to their non-incarcerated counterparts.

Beyond the social stigma of having a conviction, formerly incarcerated people already face barriers in many professions due to licensing requirements, as well as extensive gaps on their resumes because they may have been out of the labor market for decades. Some were so young when they were incarcerated that they have never worked or even filled out a job application. Sometimes parole requires people to find and maintain a job or they risk going back to prison.  

Almost three quarters of people who are formerly incarcerated are still unemployed a year after being released, according to the federal government. The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that the overall unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated individuals is 27%. 

Scott, an undergraduate student at the University of Maine Augusta who attended the conference virtually, said that doing the fellowship with the Alliance has meant she doesn’t have to rely on her family for her basic needs. “Having this semblance of independence has given me a sense of self-efficacy and progression in my life that I’ve been craving,” she said. 

“I’ve been able to pay off the entirety of my restitution…and I’ve been able to save.”

In addition to a large number of low-security individuals employed in the community through work release, the Maine DOC currently has 15 incarcerated people working remotely with six different organizations in positions ranging from fellowships and internships to full-time employment opportunities. Supervised internet access allows incarcerated people to work and study virtually from maximum security institutions such as the Maine State Prison. The state currently has around 1700 people in custody. 

Remote workers in the Maine DOC have the same standard deductions such as Medicare taxes, child support, workers compensation, etc. as any other employee. Those who are working remotely while incarcerated also pay 10% of their income towards room and board. That’s low compared to some other states. In Arizona, which has prison industry contracts with both government agencies and private companies, anyone who makes more than $2 an hour has 30% of their paycheck docked to cover their living expenses, according to a 2022 investigation into prison labor done by the Arizona Republic. 

Other states are also experimenting with paying incarcerated people outside wages. Earlier this year, Adams State University hired an incarcerated graduate from their MBA program to teach in their undergraduate program in the Colorado Department of Corrections. 

The corrections department had originally approached program administrators Lauren Hughes and Jim Bullington during the pandemic when staffing issues reduced students’ access to education. Bullington said that they were excited to implement the department’s proposal, but their one stipulation was that the instructor be paid the same wage as other adjuncts. 

Adams State recently received a $150,000 grant from The Mellon Foundation to help fund the initiative, called Turning Graduates Into Instructors. The goal is to help train more MBA graduates to teach in the program, as well as develop a model that prison education programs in other states might replicate. 

Speaking at the conference via Zoom, David Carrillo said that he never would have imagined that someone with his background would be allowed to become a professor. He was incarcerated over three decades ago at the age of 19, just a few years before Pell Grants for people in prison were eliminated. 

Carrillo co-taught Introduction to Business during his first semester, and is now teaching two sections of macroeconomics on his own. “The interest in taking my classes continues to grow even despite the fact of how challenging my classes are,” he quipped. “There are no participation trophies coming out of my class.”

Related coverage:
++ A pre-apprenticeship program at a Washington women’s prison creates a direct pathway to living-wage jobs in the trades.
++ A job readiness program at San Quentin helps men learn how to navigate the labor market. 
++ “Rethinking the student experience in prison education programs,” coverage from the 2022 National Conference for Higher Education in Prison. 

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.