The third largest prison system in the country only enrolls 326 incarcerated college students.
This article was published in partnership with Prison Journalism Project, a national nonprofit organization which trains incarcerated writers in journalism and publishes their work, and Miami New Times, a South Florida-based alternative weekly which covers compelling stories ignored or overlooked by major media.
Marina Bueno lives at a women’s correctional institution only six miles from the campus of Miami Dade College in Homestead, Florida, but she may never be able to enroll in its classes. Her facility is one of only two women’s prisons in the state and neither offer in-person college classes.
Bueno earned her GED and started her career as a writer behind bars. But a lack of higher education options in Florida prisons limits her opportunities to earn a degree before she is released in 2029.
“I would love to be able to go to college,” she said. “Many people face insurmountable economic and social challenges when they’re released, but a college degree would solve a lot of those problems.”
Aspiring students like Bueno were thrilled when federal financial aid for low-income students returned with a pilot program launched in 2015 under the Obama administration that restored Pell Grants for some incarcerated students for the first time since 1994.
Eligibility for Pell Grants expanded to everyone in prison last summer. But there are currently no new prison education programs inside the Florida Department of Corrections, the state’s largest public agency with a budget of $3.3 billion, which oversees the third largest prison system in the United States.
Higher education opportunities in Florida’s prisons are hard to come by. Today, only around 326 students are enrolled in college programs in Florida prisons, according to data provided by colleges. That’s only a tiny fraction of the more than 80,000 people incarcerated in the state. Ten sites offer college programs, including one reentry center and a privately run prison. The Florida Department of Corrections oversees 128 correctional facilities.
Despite multiple requests, the Florida Department of Corrections did not comment on whether it has plans to seek college applications to expand its higher ed offerings. Neither did it provide data on total enrollment across the system.
Bueno said that the women at her prison were excited by the possibility of enrolling in school, but so far there are no signs that college is coming to their institution anytime soon. Although Miami Dade College already runs programming at a men’s facility in Miami, the women’s prison is not an approved instructional site for Pell-eligible programs. Colleges must seek approval from the federal Education Department for every facility where they would like to teach if they use Pell Grants.
“It seems hypocritical to live in a place that is designed to change behavior, but not be able to get an education,” Bueno said. “People may feel like it’s a waste of time to let prisoners go to college, but educational programs have a positive effect on an individual, and that continues when they return to their community.”
A lack of opportunity, not desire
Incarcerated individuals who participate in postsecondary education are almost half as likely to return to prison as those who do not; moreover, prisons with college programs tend to have less violence and safer conditions for everybody, according to the Vera Institute, an independent research and policy organization focusing on criminal justice.
And studies show that many incarcerated people would enroll in college if it was offered. Nearly 70% of incarcerated people said they want to continue their education after high school, according to a 2019 report by New America, a liberal public policy think tank.
“I’ve been trying to get a transfer to one of the few Florida prisons that have colleges,” said James Stein, an incarcerated resident at Dade Correctional Institution, the men’s prison in Homestead. “But even if I make it there, the prison doesn’t want me to be in education because I’m serving a life sentence.”
Stein is serving a life sentence without parole, making him ineligible to attend college inside. The corrections department requires a resident to have less than 10 years on their sentence to participate in most programs.
The lack of education in Florida prisons extends beyond college. A 2019 investigation by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune found that 1 in 3 people incarcerated in Florida reads below a sixth grade level. And 2 in 3 lack a high school diploma or GED — the main requirement for participation in college programs.
Currently, around 156 incarcerated students attend in-person, credit-bearing college classes through Miami Dade College, Florida Gateway College and Palm Beach State College; another 170 use state-issued electronic tablets to take classes through Ashland University, a controversial private Christian college based in Ohio. In total, the Florida Department of Corrections has less than 0.5% of its incarcerated residents enrolled in college.
In comparison, Texas has about 1.3% of its total prison population enrolled in higher education, according to the state corrections agency. Meanwhile, a spokesperson from California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said that 13.5% of California’s incarcerated population are students enrolled in higher education. These are the only two states that have larger prison populations than Florida. In Maine, which has the country’s smallest incarcerated population, the state corrections department reports that 9.8% of residents are enrolled in higher education as of 2023.
None of the 12 institutions in the Florida state university system currently offer courses for credit to incarcerated students. The University of Central Florida in Orlando has taught over 50 courses to over 750 incarcerated men and women since 2017, but students don’t earn college credits that they can apply toward a degree, said professor Keri Watson, who directs the prison program. The program does not receive federal financial aid.
Without more state institutions willing to teach inside, some faculty worry there will be only an expansion of tablet-based education, which they find to be a subpar form of instruction.
The challenges of operating inside
Only three of Florida’s 28 state colleges — Florida’s version of community college — offer degree-granting programs inside. Creating a new college program inside is difficult and expensive, and community colleges often have limited resources.
Challenges include staff shortages, lack of classroom space, slow adoption of technology, security lockdowns and enrollment restrictions due to sentences. Specific students also face challenges because of defaulted student loans or state residency issues that prevent them from receiving in-state tuition.
Making things harder, colleges must redesign how they do things to operate inside correctional facilities, including financial aid processes, admissions applications, and the management of classrooms that often don’t have internet access. Research also shows there are often costs not covered by Pell Grants, which means prison education programs must sometimes supplement their budgets. And recruiting teachers is a huge challenge; the corrections department requires anyone who goes inside to complete a mandatory 40-hour training on prison policy.
While colleges like Miami Dade pay faculty for instruction time, the weeklong prison training must be done on their personal time, which discourages potential faculty members, said Samantha Carlo, co-director of Miami Dade’s program at Everglades Correctional Institution in Miami.
Everglades benefits from its proximity to the city and Miami Dade College, but many Florida prisons are located in rural areas far from higher education institutions. Instructors are not usually compensated for their drive time or gas.
In addition, there may not be a lot of political will to create new prison education programs as initiatives related to diversity, equity and inclusion come under attack in Florida.
Stephanie Etter, vice provost of academic services and learning resources for Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, wrote in an email that her institution is “focused on other college priorities and are not actively engaged in planning a prison education program.”
For now, students are limited to existing in-person programs. Miami Dade currently enrolls 66 students, according to Carlo.
Since 2017, Florida Gateway has graduated 155 students from its program at Columbia Correctional Institution. There are 60 continuing students enrolled for the spring term. So far, the college has no plans to expand the program, according to an email from the college’s communications department.
Palm Beach has provided courses since fall 2022. This summer, 30 students are scheduled to complete associate degrees in the college’s landscape and horticulture management and hospitality and tourism management programs.
Becky A. Mercer, associate dean at Palm Beach, wrote in an email that the college has no firm plans to teach in more prisons, but “discussions about expanding the program are underway.”
Ashland University offers its private, online education program at six facilities in the state. Jim Cox, assistant vice president of correctional education, said in an email that the institution is currently waiting for approval from the Florida corrections department and the federal education department to continue its Pell-funded programs.
Former Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes, who founded the Florida Policy Project think tank after he left office in 2022, said that all options should be on the table when it comes to expanding education in prison. “The goal for prisons is to improve public safety,” he said. “When you give people a way to get an education inside, it’s a better outcome for when they go home.”
The responsibility rests with the corrections department as well as the colleges and lawmakers, he said.
“You can’t expect the universities to do it all, and state legislators haven’t made higher ed in prison a priority because they ignore what goes on inside,” said Brandes, who sponsored several prison education bills during his time in office. “I go to some prisons where there’s 1,500 residents and no education programming. … That’s [because of a] lack of funding and will from the Florida Department of Corrections.”
Updated 2/6/2024: A previous version of this story misstated the total number of students enrolled in programs run by the three state colleges operating prison education programs in Florida.
This story was supported by a reporting fellowship from the Education Writers Association.