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:

Why more Florida colleges aren’t teaching inside

Ryan Moser looks at why there are only 326 incarcerated college students out of the 80,000 people incarcerated in the third largest prison system in the United States. This story was supported by a reporting fellowship from the Education Writers Association. 

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.”

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. 

Read the rest of this article here. 

Related coverage:
“A surprising barrier to college for Florida’s prison population.”
“Student loan defaults are a big barrier to prison education. The government is offering new help.”

Recommended reading

In 1997, Kimonti Carter received a mandatory life without parole sentence for a shooting that happened just a few months after his 18th birthday. The Washington state Supreme Court ruled in 2021 that such sentences are unconstitutional for 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds. That decision was the basis for a resentencing hearing in July 2022 that led to Carter’s release a few weeks later. Now, a county prosecutor is appealing Carter’s new sentence and arguing he should be sent back to prison — potentially for the rest of his life, reported Nina Shapiro for the Seattle Times. 

While he was incarcerated, Carter, now 44, helped found B.P.C. T.E.A.C.H., a grassroots education program organized by the Black Prisoners Caucus that offers college classes to people inside, regardless of their sentence. Since he’s been out, he has worked to provide resources and mentorship to people involved with the criminal legal system. 

The county prosecutor, Mary Robnett, argues that the judge lacked the authority to resentence Carter because only lawmakers can pass sentencing laws. She said that the Washington state legislature has not provided guidelines to judges on how the aggravated murder statute that Carter was charged under applies to young adults. 

“The humanity of Kimonti Carter is not lost on me,” Robnett told the Seattle Times. “But I also believe there’s a huge principle at play here.”

Shapiro noted that prosecutors’ objections to Carter’s resentencing raises common questions: Is there a point to keeping people in prison who have clearly rehabilitated? What about the victims and promises to their families? 

“But these are usually questions asked when people are seeking release from prison, not when they’re already out,” she wrote. 

Read the full article in the Seattle Times. 

Recommended viewing

Painting by Alvin Smith. Part of “The Underprivileged Oasis”, a solo exhibition at MUSE Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Incarcerated artist Alvin Smith, who is also a student at Hope College, debuted a solo exhibit, “The Underprivileged Oasis,” last month at MUSE Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The exhibition was created in collaboration with Empowerment Avenue. You can check out the virtual exhibit complete with a jazz playlist Alvin curated. “Inside a dilapidated classroom, along neighborhood sidewalks, in the midst of a church cookout or a liquor store parking lot, I try to lay bare the ugliness surrounding these underprivileged communities while I recognize and highlight the joys that happen there too,” Alvin wrote. 

Related: 
Alvin Smith illustrated our story on what happened when Pell Grants for people in prison went away in 1994. 

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.