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.

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How this Vietnam vet started a college program at a desert prison

This essay is by James “Sneaky” White as told to Charlotte West. 

James “Sneaky” White, 80, spent nearly four decades incarcerated in California. His nickname “Sneaky” comes from his days as a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. While he was incarcerated, he helped create a college program that has since graduated more than 1,500 men. In this “as told to” story, he shares how he started a college program for veterans at a desert prison. 

In 1997, I was transferred down to Ironwood State Prison, which is in Blythe, California in the desert near the Arizona border. 

I was a pretty prolific reader and I read a study from McGill University in Canada, and it showed that those who participate in education programs have far lower recidivism. At that time in California, we were at around a 65% recidivism rate. 

I was in pretty good shape with the administration. So I went to the warden and I said, ‘I want to do a college program for veterans.’

The warden had said several times that he would not allow it, but he went on vacation. The chief deputy warden, who was also a veteran, came to me and asked if I still had the paperwork. He said “Let’s do it.” We lucked out because his boss was out of town. 

And so I got 53 inmates on one yard who were veterans. One of the neat things about veterans is that at one time or another in their lives they had a mission. They’ve taken on something that was tough and they did it. So higher education is just like that, except it’s not physical. It’s mental and emotional.

Out of the first 53, 52 graduated from the program with associate’s degrees. Over half of them got honors. 

Read the rest of the story here. 

Creating direct pathways from incarceration to employment

Charlotte West/Open Campus

A number of state corrections departments — including in Washington, Iowa, and Ohio — are working with trade unions and other industry partners to create job training programs that develop pathways from prison to work.

Last month, as I was finishing this story about the Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching training program for incarcerated women in Washington state, I reached out to Joshua Johnson, an apprenticeship expert at Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit focused on education and workforce systems. I wanted to better understand what makes a good apprenticeship or other job training program inside. As this Prison Policy Initiative report found, many prison jobs programs do little to build useful skills.

Johnson, who is formerly incarcerated, was the right person to talk to. He began his post-prison career with a construction apprenticeship before spending nine years in the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, eventually becoming the state’s director of apprenticeship standards. In that position, he helped create apprenticeship programs in the state prison system. 

Here are five takeaways from our conversation:

  • Incarcerated people need direct pathways from incarceration to employment. High quality prison job training programs inside have direct relationships and connections with employers to facilitate hiring and placements for participants upon release. “You can send people to a program and give them a certificate all you want, but if they’re not connected to the industry, they’re going to struggle,” Johnson said. “Without that connection, you’re basically saying, ‘Hey, you got these skills. You did good work. But now go out and find an employer.’” 
  • Transparency is key to helping people understand what they need to do to qualify for a job. People need to understand the entry and success requirements to work in that industry. That’s one of the factors included in JFF’s Framework for a High-Quality Pre-Apprenticeship Program, which Johnson used to design prison apprenticeships in Wisconsin.
  • Many incarcerated people aren’t aware of apprenticeship pathways or that the trades offer living-wage careers. In Wisconsin, Johnson helped create “apprenticeship navigators” who were employees of the state workforce development department but worked inside the correctional system. They helped set up pre-apprenticeships and registered apprenticeship programs and then made connections for individuals prior to their release. 
  • Industry benefits, too. Johnson advises employers to consider recruiting people directly from prison. They might be willing to hire people once they get out, but many have never thought about engaging with individuals prior to release. “We know that if somebody doesn’t have a proper plan by the time they get out, they’re more likely to reoffend and come back,” Johnson said. “So the goal should be for employers to engage with the prisons, make sure that people have the proper training, and then create that direct pipeline into their organization.”
  • Bring industry to the table when designing training programs. Corrections departments can build relationships with industry by inviting state apprenticeship agencies and employers into the planning process, getting their input and approval on proposed training programs, and aligning training with minimum requirements for entry into occupations. It’s also vital that people have opportunities to earn industry-recognized credentials. “You can’t create a program inside of a prison without industry,” Johnson said.

Related coverage: “Job-hunting isn’t easy, especially after prison. San Quentin is trying to change that.”

How training in the trades is helping women succeed after prison

Brittany Wright, an apprentice with the Cement Masons & Plasterers Local Union 528. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

A year after being released from prison, three out of four people are unemployed. But the day after Brittany Wright, 30, got out in June, she was reporting to work.

Thanks to a program that trains incarcerated women in well-paying trades, she had the skills and connections she needed to start a job at Kiewit, a Seattle construction and engineering firm. Now, six months later, she’s earning $31 per hour working on a light rail expansion project for Sound Transit.

The 16-week state program, called Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching, or TRAC, helps combat a monumental challenge incarcerated people face when they reenter society: quickly finding jobs with decent wages in fields that will actually employ people with prison records.

Wright, a cement mason apprentice, said that because of TRAC, she has a clear path forward and her finances in check — an enormous improvement over her situation when she emerged from a previous prison sentence a decade ago.

“The last time, I just got out,” she said. “Everything was so much harder: Finding a job was harder, getting my life together was harder, finding a place to live was harder. All of these things that you would do to reenter society just took a long time.”

Read the rest of the story here

Related coverage: “The value of hands-on learning in prison”

Opportunities and events

The Center for Effective Public Policy is building a network of justice-impacted people who will serve as justice policy consultants. They are accepting applications for their first cohort until Feb. 16. 

Mural Arts’s Restorative Justice program is seeking artists who are returning from incarceration to apply for their Reimagining Reentry Fellowship funded by Art for Justice. The selected artist does not need to be based in Philadelphia but must be willing to travel. The artist will be paid a stipend of $10,000 and will be allotted $20,000 to fund the project. Applications are due Feb. 18. 

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators  will host an online workshop, “Completing the Paper 2024-25 FAFSA with Students Who Are Incarcerated Workshop” on Jan. 31 at 2 pm eastern. The event will cover the FAFSA completion process, highlighting the most complex form and verification questions and talk about the methods for processing paper forms. More information is available here

Join the Southern Higher Education in Prison Collective as they host the members of the Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project’s Student Council on Feb. 5 from 2-3:30 pm eastern. Register here

News and views

A new law in Illinois will require the state to publish public data on enrollment, demographics, and waitlists for higher education programs in its prisons, reports IPM News. The act went into effect Jan 1. 

Freedom Reads, the National Book Foundation and the Center for Justice Innovation launched the Inside literary prize, the first major US book award to be judged exclusively by incarcerated people. The winner will be announced in June 2024, according to The Guardian.  

The Daily Collegian reports that Penn State will become the second university in Pennsylvania to provide incarcerated people with the opportunity to earn their bachelor’s degrees.

Prison Journalism Project contributor Anthony Ehlers interviews James Soto, who was released from prison at the end of last year after a 42-year fight to prove his innocence, for Chicago Reader. In November, Soto graduated from Northwestern University’s Northwestern Prison Education Program at Stateville in Illinois. 

A federal grant has allowed Minnesota to offer incarcerated people training to become peer support specialists — a position focused on helping others by drawing on one’s own personal experience with addiction and recovery — at correctional facilities across the state, reports the Star Tribune. The certification allows them to work with their peers inside prison and qualifies them to pursue careers in peer recovery support once they are released.

Cal State LA has received a $900,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to establish an educational and employment program that supports individuals during incarceration and reentry. The program will link formerly incarcerated college graduates with regional employers and community organizations.

As prisons cut back on classes, counseling, and other programming — or people are transferred to other prisons without the same offerings — incarcerated people lose important outlets for mental health and well-being and may turn to less productive ways to fill their days, Tony Vick writes for Filter.

In 2022, the number of people working for state prisons hit its lowest mark in over two decades, The Marshall Project reports. Meanwhile, the population in state prisons is rebounding after a drop at the start of the pandemic. Staff shortages affect everything from education to healthcare.

recent report from the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition highlights the continued problems that prison staff shortages create for the state’s incarcerated population, reports Colorado Newsline. The corrections department regularly diverts program staff to work security shifts when there aren’t enough correctional officers. Almost 90 percent of incarcerated people who responded to a survey said staff like teachers and case managers are frequently or very frequently reassigned to a correctional officer post in their prisons.

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.