When Congress voted in 2020 to lift the 26-year ban on Pell Grants for people in prison, it marked a new era for educating the incarcerated. Although establishing new prison education programs is a slow process, opportunities for incarcerated people to access higher education are expected to grow in the coming years.

As that process gets underway, education advocates also want to ensure those new programs are racially equitable and reflective of the prison population’s overall demographics.

“We’re not going to see the true potential of what this really big opportunity is if we’re not thinking about everyone who’s interested in pursuing a degree having the opportunity to earn one,” said Kayla James, senior program associate with the Unlocking Potential initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal justice–focused research and policy organization that lobbied for an end to the Pell Grant ban for inmates. “We need to think about using a racial equity lens to improve the quality of these programs.”

Suggestions on how states and institutions running prison education programs can work toward accomplishing that goal—such as prioritizing student input and using data to evaluate and compare the equity of student outcomes—are the focus of a new report the Vera Institute released last week.

“Beyond Access: Advancing Racial Equity and Inclusion in Prison Education Programs” is based on two years of piloting equity-focused programs and practices in prison education as part of the Race, Equity and Inclusion in Postsecondary Education in Prison Project, which Vera launched in 2020.

It collaborated with education equity experts; nine institutions across Michigan, Oklahoma and Washington State and their corrections department partners; and postsecondary education system offices to collect and analyze data, pilot new interventions and develop strategies to reduce inequities.

“This was an effort to take what research has shown to be effective in higher education more generally and implement those in the college-in-prison space,” said Allan Wachendorfer, a program manager with the Unlocking Potential initiative and co-author of the report. And given that combining two historically inequitable institutions—education and prison—compounds inequalities, he said the project aimed to find out “what kind of challenges arise in being able to implement those impactful practices and assess what kinds of corrections policies and practices may inhibit equity in college in prison.”

Even before the Pell Grant ban ended last July, data from Second Chance Pell, the government-run pilot program that launched in 2015, showed persistent racial inequities in the prison education system.

Among the 40,000 students who participated in Second Chance Pell between 2016 and 2022, white students were overrepresented in the classroom compared to the general population by approximately seven percentage points. Black students, however, were underrepresented by eight percentage points, and Hispanic/Latino students were underrepresented by 16 percentage points, according to a 2023 report from the Vera Institute.

Centering Students’ Voices

The nine institutions that the Vera Institute worked with during the project were all Second Chance Pell sites. They shared strategies on offering equity-focused prison education, such as establishing a student voice council modeled after an existing council at Tacoma Community College’s Washington Corrections Center for Women campus, one of the program’s participants.

“We knew that even though we wanted to replicate things you would see on a typical community campus, things are going to work differently inside a prison,” said Sultana Shabazz, dean of corrections education at TCC and WCCW. Diverse representation from across the prison was a priority in creating the student voice council, which embeds the perspectives of incarcerated students throughout the process of creating and implementing prison education programs.

“For it to be successful, it couldn’t just be a select group of privileged students sitting around talking about stuff,” Shabazz said. “We wanted to make sure we were reaching back out into the residential population to hear about their concerns and include them in things we were talking about. But we also wanted to make sure they knew what was happening in education, because we’re always trying to get new students.”

Although 69 percent of incarcerated people in the United States want to enroll in a college program, only 21 percent actually are enrolled, according to a 2019 report from New America.

Through the student voice council, Shabazz and her team were able to get specifics on some of the barriers keeping potential students, especially students of color, from enrolling, despite every prison in Washington State already offering adult basic education programs.

“We found some pushback from people who needed to work to support themselves, because there are still things you need to buy in a prison,” Shabazz said. Hearing that motivated the facility to develop more flexible, inclusive programming and emphasize education as a path toward stability upon release.

But administrators also need to inform students about the limits of a Pell Grant, especially in a setting that doesn’t have the capacity to offer the dozens of programs available at traditional colleges and universities.

“There’s only so much Pell. Once you use it, it’s gone,” Shabazz said. She stressed the importance of talking to students about their career goals postrelease so they don’t use up their grant money on a prison program misaligned with their long-term aspirations. “It’s imperative that we make strategic decisions based on what the population of a facility is looking for and [that] gives them the best set of options that doesn’t squander their Pell.”

Gathering student input through the student voice council also helped Shabazz and her team design a new course on re-entry, which teaches skills like résumé writing and interviewing, but also how to navigate the emotional and social challenges of re-entry. “We’re not talking about abstract things based on what we think students should know or know,” Shabazz said. “It’s based on people who have to live this.”

Higher education institutions can’t prepare students for re-entry on their own and should seek out support from community-based organizations, said Stanley Andrisse, who was formerly incarcerated and is now an endocrinologist and executive director of From Prison Cells to PhD, an organization aimed at helping people who have been to prison start careers.

“Formerly incarcerated and currently incarcerated people need to be part of the leadership of higher education institutions and community-based organizations moving Pell restoration forward,” said Andrisse, who noted that existing prison education programs are often led by white women, despite high numbers of incarcerated people of color and men. “If we don’t see that as a really integral part of this new era, we will not only be missing out on an opportunity but could be setting ourselves up for damaging situations.”

Pell Restoration Is ‘Just a Start’

Restoring access to the Pell Grant for people in prison won’t be enough to create high-quality, equitable higher education programs that offer mentoring, tutoring and the other academic supports known to help students succeed.

“It’s really just a start,” Andrisse said. “Higher-ups may initially think that with this new program they don’t have to spend any extra money. But when they get deeper into the conversation, they’ll learn they do have to spend money if they want to do it correctly.”

That’s a lesson leaders of prison education programs in Michigan, who participated in the Vera Institute’s program, have already learned. The Michigan Department of Corrections has secured funding from the state Legislature to support prison education in recent years, including $15 million to install secure Wi-Fi networks.

“It will be a game-changer when it comes to the student experience,” said Kyle Kaminski, offender success administrator for MDOC, who noted that incarcerated students across the state currently have inconsistent access to tablets, laptops and other forms of educational technology.

“As it comes online, we’ll be able to have a true learning management platform for the colleges, and students will be able to have a more robust college experience,” he said.

Data Collection

The Vera Institute’s project also highlighted inconsistencies in data collection across different institutions and the corrections departments. Kary Bosma, director of operations at the Calvin Prison Initiative, sponsored by Calvin University in Grand Rapids, said that while her program has been tracking the racial makeup of its students in an effort to prioritize equitable admissions practices, some schools had not.

“It’s difficult to ensure equity when you’re not tracking who your students are,” said Bosma, who noted that different institutions use a wide range of categories to identify student demographics. “We’re trying to all use the same practices so we can compare across programs and ensure equity among all of the programs in Michigan.”

Part of making those programs equitable is taking an intentional approach to enrollment and using admissions metrics that emphasize potential rather than focusing on an applicant’s demonstrated aptitude in specific academic areas.

“The population that didn’t demonstrate academic aptitude were the underserved and traditionally overlooked populations, which tended to be the racial majority in the prison,” Bosma said, reflecting on why Calvin’s prison education program re-evaluated it admissions practices. “We’ve started to admit people not based on the strength of the academics they already had but on their potential to benefit from an educational opportunity. That required the commitment to provide student academic support services that would enable someone to catch up.”

But just because someone wants to pursue an education during their incarceration doesn’t mean they should access their Pell Grant without guidance.

“Pell eligible doesn’t mean college ready,” said Ved Price, executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison. “Some of these schools may begin enrolling people because they’re eligible. Then they get into these classes and don’t do well. That could have an adverse effect on that person’s relationship with education and their long-term Pell eligibility as well.”

And since Pell restoration is happening in a climate of intensified political backlash to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, Price said institutions will need more than data to realize equity in prison education.

“It’s going to have to be a shift in the minds of leadership and the culture at large,” he said. “That’s going to take long-term trust and relationship building.”

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