Over the years, various obstacles have made pursuing higher education in prison a struggle. Noise, a lack of current information or internet access, lost lessons and exams, miscommunications with academic advisers or professors, the stress and pitfalls of life on the inside, and more have made for an isolated learning experience. Prison staff have also been at times problematic and discouraging. None of these hindrances completely stopped the process and, because they are common, have helped me draw from a well of resilience I did not know I possess.
Since 2004, a local nonprofit organization has funded college correspondence courses for me and another person on North Carolina’s death row. Our sponsor believes that in providing an opportunity to learn exists the potential to transform our lives. This private investment enabled me to complete an associate’s degree in arts in 2013 through Ohio University’s distance learning program. In 2017, I was accepted into the university’s bachelor of specialized studies degree program in criminal justice administration. I am now a member of the Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor Society’s Psi Delta chapter at Ohio University.
But despite those successes, I, along with many other incarcerated people, continue to confront significant challenges in striving to access higher education that go far beyond our individual situations and are, in fact systemic in nature. The situation is particularly troubling, given that studies clearly demonstrate that society only benefits when those in prison can pursue their college degrees.
Symptoms of Hysteria
When the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act eliminated prisoner access to federal Pell Grants for postsecondary correctional education, most college-in-prison programs disappeared. Today, in 25 states, no college programs are available to prisoners. A few states, like California and Indiana, have continued to fund college programs in prison, while a number of others offer limited non-degree-bearing programs. Other states have provided no funding but allowed nonprofit organizations and philanthropists to establish highly selective degree programs in prison, the most notable being New York’s Bard Prison Initiative. All in all, a handful of accredited universities that offer correspondence courses to prisoners, regardless of sentence or custody level, are left to fill the gap in higher educational services. I know of only two -- Adams State University and Ohio University -- that offer correspondence degree programs.
The end of Pell Grants for prisoners signaled an internal shift in penal policy. Support for any rehabilitative programming grew inconsistent at best and nonexistent at worst. In some facilities, prison officials did not care if offenders wanted to improve themselves; they were to be punished and held for the duration of a sentence. Nothing more. This ideology spread for years until mass incarceration awakened federal and state lawmakers to the folly of their tough-on-crime policies. Band-Aid bills, like the Second Chance Pell pilot program and the First Step Act, have attempted to address the egregious problems of recidivism, but they are just baby steps up the side of a mountain.
The beliefs that ended Pell Grants in 1994, and that continue to obstruct higher education in prison today, are not based on evidence. Rather, they are vengeful, frenzied appeals toward draconian laws that most modern democracies left in the annals of history. These arguments -- that college is a privilege, prisoners are incapable of authentic rehabilitation, there are sufficient programs in prison, college is a re-entry tool only -- do not advance criminal justice nor make communities any safer. Like any emotional appeal that weaponizes misinformation and relies upon ignorance to win the day, such arguments are fallacious and ignore the facts. Contending that higher education should be reserved for certain groups of people is discriminatory, classist and ignorant of the many problems postsecondary correctional education can address.
I certainly recognize that people who commit crimes should be punished and held accountable for the harm they caused. The community also deserves safety and security from future criminal acts. But since 90 to 95 percent of all prisoners in the United States earn release, it is imperative that crime prevention manifests in community policing and rehabilitative programming during incarceration. Retributive incarceration relies on long sentences and nothing else, whereas rehabilitation reduces prison violence and prepares re-entering citizens to be contributing members of society.
It seems obvious but bears some repeating: the more education a person has, the less likely he or she is to commit a crime. The average national recidivism rate is approximately 65 to 70 percent. Prisoners who participate in postsecondary correctional education programs are 43 percent less likely to reoffend than those who do not.
Higher education is largely able to keep people from returning to prison because it effectively addresses criminality unlike any other program in prison. Students learn critical thinking, communication and social skills, ethics, time management, goal setting, perspective taking, organization, and accountability for one’s actions or inaction. In contrast, the Basic Adult Education and GED classes currently taught in most prisons do not develop such skills. Vocational programs may train offenders to be plumbers, mechanics, carpenters and beauticians, but they do not improve decision making outside of those occupations. Had such vocational training been enough to assist prisoners with re-entry, the national recidivism rate would not be so high. And as it stands, as of this year, nearly two-thirds of all employers in America require that their employees have at least some college education.
Re-entry and recidivism aside, it is safer and cheaper to educate and guard well-behaved, mentally sound prisoners who positively impact their environment rather than violent ones with nothing productive on their minds. College provides long-term goals and planning that help manage idle time, attend to developmental needs and make prison management easier over all.
Postsecondary correctional education programs keep prisoners busy with meaningful, challenging activities; expand their worldview through the development of pro-social, nonviolent, noncriminal identities; and make them less likely to engage in physical confrontation to solve problems. Also, they are a carrot that can be taken away if a prisoner acts up.
Succeeding at college in prison requires a great deal of dedication, which is especially true of correspondence-degree programs, where there is no classroom, little communication with professors, and only one deadline: course expiration. When a prison lacks an educational apparatus, completing a single course with proctored exams can be an arduous experience. The journey is humbling, long-suffering, independent and demands daily accountability.
The stigma of prison and a felony record does not suddenly disappear when you become a student. If anything, the incarcerated student has to work three times as hard as ordinary students to overcome the branding of not being worth an education. Many people believe that prisoners can only be the sum of their crimes. They often think prisoners will always be remorseless, scheming and trying to cheat the system -- when all many of them want is an opportunity to learn. As an incarcerated student, sometimes letters are ignored, misunderstood or thought of as grasping. Queries for help are dismissed or given half answers. When this happens to me, I remember that prison is not supposed to be easy, but if learning is to be in my future, I must fight to prove myself worthy.
As a long-term prisoner, I answered the question of my degree by writing and publishing essays about my incarcerated experiences. Despite the restrictive nature of prison, I have coordinated assignments and revisions to articles from editors and networked with people all over the country. In the last two years, I have spoken, via the phone, to students, educators and community leaders at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ohio University, the Ohio Academic Advising Association Conference and two local churches. Each venue presented an opportunity to create a better understanding of capital punishment, prison reform and community involvement in reforming the criminal justice system. My response to each opportunity was a practical application of higher education in prison.
After earning my associate’s degree, I found myself asking, “Now what?” Arriving at this point seemed like such a herculean task. I felt responsible to do and be more than my worst mistakes. Earning a degree is more than a credential -- it is a transformational journey that means dedication to the path of higher education. It is a conscious, constant effort to overcome every obstacle in prison.
The first obstacle for every incarcerated student is making the conscious choice to learn. The rationale varies, but choosing higher education ultimately means accepting responsibility for past failures with an eye toward building a better future. For the entire incarcerated population, that is critical to evolving as human beings and obtaining the necessary tools for success in life -- whether that life is in prison or the community.
But it should not be this difficult. Access to higher education in prison should not depend on what state or facility confines an offender, which political party favors the idea and whether prison administrators are for or against rehabilitative efforts. If any prisoner seeks out and engages in higher education, that choice should be supported at every level.
The fact is that, regardless of one’s politics, higher education is a basic human need. The opportunity should be available to anyone who pursues it, whether they are in prison or not. This is not about who deserves to attend college. It is a call for social justice.