A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. Written by Open Campus national reporter Charlotte West, supported by Ascendium.

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

Poor implementation of a new law is leaving some locked up


By Carl Rogers’s calculations, he should be out of prison now.

But the Illinois Department of Corrections says his expected release date is in 2027.

Rogers is one of many people in Illinois prisons who believe they are not getting the full sentence reductions allowed under a new law that gives new credits for participating in education, work, and other programs.

As many as 1,000 people who are still in custody could be eligible for immediate release if they received proper sentence recalculations, according to Alan Mills, executive director of the civil rights law firm Uptown People’s Law Center.

There are inconsistencies in how the law is being applied at different facilities and poor recordkeeping. Meanwhile, a lack of transparency in how prison staff are calculating sentence credits has further complicated efforts by people inside to make sure they are getting appropriate credit for the work and education they’ve completed.

Many of the records used to recalculate people’s sentences only go back to 2010 when the corrections department switched to a new digital information system. But most of the people like Rogers who would benefit from the new law have been incarcerated since the 1990s.

Read the full story here

Many states don’t educate people sentenced to life. Now some are coming home.

Yusef Qualls-El, who goes by “Q”, looks out of the driver side window of one of the one of the trucks at the Suburban Truck Center in Romulus, Mich., where he did truck driver training. Qualls-El was largely shut out of educational opportunities during his 28-year incarceration in Michigan, but he’s now earned a commercial drivers license and hopes to become an entrepreneur. (Amanda J. Cain/Open Campus Media)

When Yusef Qualls-El was 17, a judge sentenced him to life behind bars. It was the mid-1990s, an era when the U.S. prison population exploded.

Thousands of minors like Qualls-El received sentences of life without parole and entered prison at an age when their peers were going to college or starting their careers. But inside, education is often reserved for those who will soon return to society. As a result, those who were seen as the least likely to get out had the fewest opportunities.

Now, as courts and lawmakers have begun to rethink extreme sentencing policies for young people, thousands of those sentenced to spend their lives in prison are getting out. Suddenly, people who went to prison as teenagers are being released as middle-aged men and women.

Building a living-wage career — let alone going to school — often seems out of reach for people like Qualls-El, a 44-year-old with a criminal history and no formal education beyond a GED.

After he was resentenced in 2022, Qualls-El was still told no when he wanted to enroll in college. He didn’t have enough time left on his sentence to finish a degree. “I’ve spent 27-plus years plus in prison, hoping to get some sort of education, but wasn’t allowed, because of how much time I had left,” Qualls-El said on a call from prison at the end of 2022, about six months before he was released. “Now I have too little time.”

Read the full story here

Related coverage: 
++ Formerly incarcerated people must weigh whether or not to share the certificates they earned inside, a phenomenon known as the “prison credential dilemma.”
++ A Q&A with Andrew Hundley, a juvenile lifer from Louisiana. 
++ The reentry experiences of juvenile lifers. 

After his release from a Colorado prison, David Carrillo continues to educate students on the inside

David Carrillo during a video interview at Jim’s Burger Haven on April 1, 2024. Carrillo works to teach students in prison after receiving clemency. (Jason Gonzales / Chalkbeat)

David Carrillo often envisioned himself walking into a diner just like Jim’s Burger Haven in Thornton. Or maybe browsing in Walmart or some other store.

He had heard so many stories about others out on parole getting overwhelmed in new situations, especially after almost three decades in prison. He wanted to be prepared for his release at the end of January from the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility.

“I would kind of visualize myself walking through these different areas and being OK,” he said during an interview in early April.

So far, as he’s transitioned into his new life, there have been very few moments where he’s felt uncomfortable, Carrillo said after eating Jim’s classic smash burger and fries. Sure, he has had to figure out his style — he really likes Levi’s — and the grocery brands he likes to eat and favorite restaurants.

But Carrillo, 49, has eased into exactly what he said he wanted to do before his release — continuing to teach and “pay it forward.”

After becoming one of the first incarcerated professors in the country to teach incarcerated students, Carrilllo was released after Colorado Gov. Jared Polis granted him clemency in part due to his work as an Adams State University educator.

This story was cowritten with Jason Gonzales, our reporter at partner Chalkbeat Colorado. Read the full story here

Related coverage: 
++ David Carrillo becomes the country’s first incarcerated professor to teach incarcerated students. 

Incarcerated borrowers can now consolidate student loans

Earlier this week, the U.S. Education Department announced that incarcerated borrowers can now consolidate their loans to get them out of default. Consolidation allows people to combine one or more federal loans into a new loan. Previously, incarcerated borrowers were not eligible for consolidation. 

Borrowers in default who consolidate can access to certain types of loans that will allow them to sign up for income-driven repayment plans like the Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) Plan. People on a SAVE repayment plan may eventually be eligible for loan forgiveness after 10 or 20 years, depending on their original loan balance. 

Income-driven repayment plans mean that monthly student loan payment amounts are determined by income and family size. As a result, monthly payments for incarcerated borrowers can be as little as $0. 

Incarcerated borrowers can also still sign up for Fresh Start, a temporary program launched last year to bring defaulted loans into good standing, until Sept. 30, 2024. Education Department officials urge borrowers in default to first take advantage of the Fresh Start program while it’s still available before seeking consolidation. There is no deadline for consolidation. 

The Department noted that borrowers who remain in default may be unable to receive certain relief measures and may be subject to financial consequences. People with defaulted loans are ineligible for federal Pell Grants, which are the federal financial aid restored for incarcerated students in July 2023. 

This measure does not allow incarcerated borrowers to take out new student loans to pay for education inside. 

Borrowers who had student loans before becoming incarcerated can consolidate their loans by contacting their student loan servicer, as long as they are not students (such as being enrolled in a prison education program or Second Chance Pell program) when they consolidate. 

Related coverage: 
++ “One route to a fresh start on student debt.
++ “Student loan defaults are a big barrier to prison education. The government is offering new help.

News & views

The University of Utah Prison Education Project published a new brief on how presidents of colleges with prison education programs talk about and explain providing postsecondary education to incarcerated learners. 

It’s unclear if people incarcerated in the Montana Department of Corrections are receiving much education or instruction because the data and recordkeeping within the agency is either nonexistent or incomplete, according to a legislative audit published in April. The Daily Montanan reported that education and work programs across the state do not meet demand and are not regularly assessed to ensure relevance or quality; incarcerated people are not consistently provided education, career counseling or re-entry assistance; and private facilities contracting with the state in some cases have even more problems with education programs.

new study by public health researcher Noel Vest published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that students who are formerly incarcerated are more likely to work more hours than students who have not been incarcerated. Students who have had some level of involvement with the criminal justice system, but not incarcerated, were more likely to experience more severe substance use disorder than students who did not engage with this system. 

In April, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services announced a new agreement with the University System of Maryland that will establish a framework to bring higher education programs to every state-run prison, utilizing newly reinstated federal Pell Grants, reports the Baltimore Banner. The department told the Baltimore Banner it was the first corrections agency in the country to formalize an agreement with an entire state university system.

The Appeal reports that the federal Bureau of Prisons proposed a rule published in the federal register on Feb. 2 suggesting a series of changes to “inmate discipline regulations,” including stricter bans on possessing hazardous tools, escaping from prison, or encouraging others to engage in work strikes. But multiple sections pertaining to the use of social media caught the eye of civil rights organizations focused on First Amendment rights. If enacted, one measure would ban “accessing, using, or maintaining social media, or directing others to establish or maintain social media accounts on the inmate’s behalf,” Jerry Iannelli writes.

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.