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Nate Johnson, founder of FreeWriters, and three incarcerated students in orange uniforms stand around a table covered in papers.

Nate Johnson, founder of FreeWriters, does writing exercises with incarcerated students at a county jail in Minnesota.

Damian Johansson

John Schlueter, chair of the English department at Saint Paul College, was shocked when he started teaching creative writing on a volunteer basis at county jails in Minnesota. He and other members of a local nonprofit group called FreeWriters found little educational programming to speak of in the jails other than Alcoholics Anonymous and Bible study.

And no college courses or academic advising were available to encourage people in jail to enroll in college after release.

Schlueter, a longtime professor at the community college, understood that jails, unlike prisons, are generally intended for short-term incarceration—people awaiting trial or sentencing or serving shorter sentences. But he didn’t realize until his volunteer work that some people were still stuck there for a year or more with minimal educational opportunities.

“Unlike prison, where there’s a yard, there’s programming, they can take college classes, they can exercise … that doesn’t happen in jails,” he said, at least the jails he’s visited in Minnesota. “Most of the press about education when it comes to incarcerated individuals is around prisons, and colleges going into prisons, and prisoners being able to get Pell Grants and stuff like that, but there’s really this overall … neglected population.”

That population is not insignificant. Hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. are held annually in local jails , according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Nearly 550,000 people were held in jails in 2020, according to the bureau’s data. Yet Schlueter and other educators who work with this population say they regularly meet incarcerated people who have been in jail for several months or even more than a year, with few academic opportunities available to them. Some advocates are concerned people in jail are being underserved even as efforts to educate people incarcerated in state and federal prisons are getting renewed attention by higher ed leaders and federal lawmakers.

Colleges have been eager to create new and expand existing programs in prisons since Congress reinstated access to the Pell Grant for incarcerated individuals in 2020. The long-awaited policy shift is set to go into effect this July.

Nate Johnson, the founder of FreeWriters, said his organization began as an outlet for incarcerated people to express themselves through writing, but now he and Schlueter are discussing how to also use the program as a “recruitment station” or pathway to local colleges by bringing college advising into the facilities.

These would-be students are “just kind of sitting in there, feeling shittier and shittier every day, when what we ought to be doing for them is helping them go to community college,” Johnson said.

A Common Problem, Emerging Solutions

Advocates for incarcerated students say higher ed programs in jails are less widely available than prison programs because they’re harder to develop and offer.

Ruth Delaney, associate director of the Unlocking Potential Initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice, a research and advocacy organization focused on criminal justice reform, said those incarcerated in jails stay for unpredictable lengths of time and aren’t necessarily there for a full academic term during which they could earn course credits. Programs in jail regularly lose students as charges against them are dropped, students accept plea bargains or they receive longer sentences that send them to prisons.

“That uncertainty of that person’s timeline is usually what trips up a higher education program,” Delaney said. “You can’t quite be sure that you’re going to have even enough students to meet your business model … You might start with 12 and end with three. Things like that happen a lot in a jail setting because there’s just so much turnover.”

Kellie Nadler, regional coordinator at the Rising Scholars Network, a coalition of California community colleges committed to serving incarcerated students, said sometimes jails also aren’t properly equipped to house these programs. Former California governor Jerry Brown signed legislation in 2011 that sent low-level offenders, who would have once gone to state prisons, to county jails to avoid prison overcrowding. But that means people with longer sentences, such as two years or five years, are now in facilities that were never meant for long-term stays and that don’t necessarily have the infrastructure for academic programming, such as classroom space, said Nadler.

Nadler noted that the California Community College system has 116 campuses, but they are only active in 29 out of 58 county jail systems in the state, and not all of them offer credit-bearing courses.

Western Mass CORE, a college program in three Massachusetts jails run by two professors at Holyoke Community College, has encountered some of these challenges. The program offers credit-bearing courses in the jails, ranging from anthropology to criminology to economics.

Mary Orisich, an economics professor at Holyoke and co-coordinator of the program, said it’s easier for programs in prison to “demonstrate measurable outcomes” because they have consistent cohorts of students who stay through the term. Both funders and institutional leaders want to know about enrollment, retention and completion rates, which are hard to pin down “given the transient nature of the population,” she said.

She added that there’s also a misconception about who’s in jail and for how long, which makes higher ed institutions less likely to invest in these programs. The professors and the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office conducted a survey of more than 300 incarcerated students in local jails and found that the majority hadn’t been sentenced yet, meaning they still had a ways to go before their release. The average time spent in jail was 244 days.

Nicole Hendricks, professor and chair of the Holyoke criminal justice department and co-coordinator of the program, said many of their students are also coming into jails with some college experience but no degree. Of the several hundred incarcerated students surveyed, 165 had enrolled in college in the past. Of that group, roughly a third had attended Holyoke, and about 30 percent had previously enrolled at another local community college.

For that reason, the program also helps incarcerated students figure out how to string together credits they’ve earned, before and during their time in jail, and ensure they’re accepted at local colleges so students can continue their education with as many credits as possible upon release. The program also has on-campus supports for students once they’re released, including a designated student lounge, and has held a job fair and a free legal clinic for those wanting to expunge or seal criminal records.

“What happens when people are released is sort of where the rubber hits the road,” Hendricks said. “That’s the critical point. Are we still going to be in the lives of students? Are we going to be a community college that serves their needs when they’re incarcerated and when they come back to their neighborhoods?”

Hendricks said one of the reasons she and Orisich started the program is they noticed how many students in their classrooms had been through the local jail system or had family members who were formerly incarcerated.

“We believe firmly that it’s within our mission and vision to be working in these places, because this is where our students are,” Hendricks said.

Best Practices

Delaney believes it’s worth it to colleges to bring academic offerings to jails, despite the challenges. She noted that faculty members report that these are “really wonderful, rewarding teaching environments” because students are so enthusiastic to participate, and it’s a chance to connect with “hard-to-reach students” who might not have otherwise thought they belonged in college or struggled with navigating the enrollment process. She added that students in jails are also, and have always been, eligible for Pell Grants, unlike prison populations.

There’s also another benefit. People in jails are generally local residents, and “all over the country, colleges are down on enrollments, and they’re looking to reach students they haven’t reached before,” she said.

However, “you have to be creative with the kind of programming you’re offering,” she added. She said colleges interested in serving potential students in jails should consider creating bridge programs that help them enroll in college or offer in-jail classes that match those on campus so newly released students can more seamlessly continue their studies.

Nadler said most of the community colleges in California that offer courses in jail have condensed academic terms so students are more likely to earn some college credit before release. Those eight to 11 weeks are an opportunity for “trust building” and encouraging students to continue their studies when they get out by informing them about the postrelease supports available on campus and bringing formerly incarcerated students or alumni to the jails who could serve as mentors. Nadler also advocates for a guided pathway approach to college-in-jail programs, in which colleges offer courses that stack toward particular certificates or degrees for those in jail for longer lengths of time.

State policy makers may also have a role to play. Nadler believes states should mandate access to higher education for college-eligible people in jails with long stays and provide funding to support these programs.

These programs are a “matter of equity” and “[enable] our community colleges to be part of a process of restoration by offering education in a way that really transforms lives and communities,” Nadler said. And “we know that education is one of the most effective interventions for reducing recidivism, so investing money in education can save money for the state in the long term.”

Schlueter, of Saint Paul College, said he ideally wants to set up an “on-ramp” to community college for the local jail population with a suite of wraparound supports when they get out.

His dream would be “having advising in there, getting the application process started, and then before they even get out, hooking them up with housing organizations, food banks, mental health counseling—all of that stuff ready to go as soon as they step outside the walls,” he said. “And just to make them feel like they can walk into a community college and feel welcome.”

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