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Addressing a sun-drenched, socially distanced crowd of graduates in late May, Dwayne Betts, the lawyer, poet, and memoirist, delivered the 2021 commencement speech at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Among those graduates were eight men who were recently or are still currently incarcerated in Connecticut’s Cheshire Correctional Institution and who earned their bachelor’s degree this year through the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education (CPE).

CPE is one of a handful of college-in-prison programs throughout the nation that provides courses ranging from liberal arts to more specialized career-technical training. Launched in 2009, the program accepts applicants from aspiring students incarcerated at Cheshire Correctional Institution, a men’s maximum security prison, and York CI, Connecticut’s only women’s state prison. Accepted students are invited to take accredited courses from both Wesleyan and Middlesex College, which are taught by instructors from each school. CPE provides six courses per semester in fields ranging from sociology to advanced calculus. Each student can enroll in two classes per semester and supplement their learning with study halls and guest lectures from visiting scholars. 

While under normal circumstances, the gulf between CPE and Wesleyan students might seem wide, but after a year in a pandemic, Betts noted how the CPE graduates’ experience with incarceration and the passage of time created a unique connection between them. As he knows from his own experience, “no one understands time like prisoners.”

“I stood for count more than 5,237 times over the eight years I spent in prison,” Betts said during the graduation ceremony. “I remember how cells slowed time in ways similar but so distinct from COVID. I know that the graduates here, their parents, that we all understand some of that burden now. Understand what it means to not know when or if you will walk amongst your friends again. Chasing freedom through education, all while wondering if they’d ever walk outside and feel safe again. Today, these men, some of whom have known more years in prison than free, should know that their fellow graduates understand a little bit of what it meant for them to study inside.”

Accessing aid

As a private institution, Wesleyan can help CPE participants navigate some of the cost barriers associated with attending, but for students incarcerated at facilities not associated with private institutions, paying for their studies can be an insurmountable challenge. Since the mid 1990s, those incarcerated in federal and state prisons have been banned from accessing Pell Grants. Under the ban, the number of prison education programs plummeted from 772 in the early 1990s to just eight by 1997. 

In 2015, an initiative launched by the Obama administration helped offer some relief for a handful of incarcerated students. Known as the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative (SCP), the program allowed a small cohort of colleges to work with nearby correctional institutions and administer Pell Grants to their incarcerated students. In 2016, 67 colleges were admitted. In 2020, the Trump administration expanded the initiative bringing the total number of participating colleges to 130, spread across 42 states and D.C. While a good first step, Ruth Delaney, program manager at Vera Institute of Justice, says barriers still exist even for those students seeking to enroll at SCP institutions. Those roadblocks are often related to filing the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. 

“As you can imagine, just as on the outside, [there are] students that have trouble gathering the proper documentation to file the FAFSA, [such as] those that might not be considered ‘independent students,’ [because] they are under 26 and so therefore considered dependent on their parents,” Delaney said. “For those students, it’s incredibly difficult to get the documentation together because you also need their parents’ information. So we haven’t seen a very high proportion of young students enrolling in prison and we assume that that’s in part because of the difficulty of filing the FAFSA.”

The length of the FAFSA itself—currently 180 questions long—can be a hurdle as well. Delaney also noted that people incarcerated under certain sentences such as life without parole or those who are sentenced to death are barred from accessing financial aid even if they are applying to an SCP institution.

In December 2020, Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act, which will both make the FAFSA shorter and easier to navigate and restore access to Pell Grants for all people in prison. The policy will go into effect in 2023, meaning that until then SCP remains the only access to federal aid for a small segment of aspiring incarcerated students. 

‘Prisons are not designed around a semester schedule’

Beyond applying for aid, incarcerated students also experience a number of challenges maintaining their studies once they are enrolled. Last-minute disruptions such as an unexpected 24-hour lockdown—which could prevent people from traveling to a classroom from their housing unit—can be routine. Finding quiet spaces to study can also be difficult at facilities that don’t seek to intentionally house students together—particularly given that prison acoustics are notoriously poor. These design challenges are more pronounced at “dedicated facilities” that incarcerate specialized populations, such as work release prisons where incarcerated people only spend the daytime there but are housed elsewhere overnight. These facilities often lack classroom spaces and libraries and fail to provide either the infrastructure or the time for studying. Additionally, most prison education programs, much like colleges and universities on the outside, thrive upon group interaction and shared study spaces—something that’s impossible in facilities that continue to detain people in solitary isolation. 

A particularly unique challenge that speaks to the uneven landscape of prison education opportunities is the frequency of facility transfers. For students who have already begun their semester, a facility transfer to elsewhere in the state can undermine their progress. 

“People in prison are often moved to other prisons all the time; there are people in buses being moved across the state to different facilities practically every day,” Delaney said. “Oftentimes, there’s not a lot of warning about who’s going to go and the institutional priorities of the Department of Corrections are not always in line with the college. College programs try very hard to mitigate that, avoid it, or time it so that at least the person can finish the term and not lose credits that they started. We see different levels of success in terms of that, but prisons are not designed around a semester schedule.”

Even in the wake of such difficulties, however, Ruth says that incarcerated students develop ways to navigate those challenges.

“We hear stories from students about everyone going to bed and they wake up again at three in the morning and they do their studying in the middle of the night, because that’s when it’s quiet,” said Delaney. “So students in these programs tend to be incredibly dedicated to what they’re doing and they find ways even though it’s not an ideal environment. I, of course, wish we didn’t have to ask that of them.”

While participating colleges often do work to provide assistance to their incarcerated students, at times correctional facility staff and local or state departments of corrections raise concerns against these programs—especially those that offer scholarships and tuition grants. 

“I think there is less [pushback] when you’re dealing with need-based financial aid, because it’s an equal playing field for people inside prisons and outside prisons,” Delaney said. “But when you’re talking about a program, where it’s a scholarship to a fancy or elite college, sometimes there’s unhappiness amongst department staff who feel that people in prison are getting something that they or their families don’t have access to.”

High levels of pushback can dissuade correctional departments from even pursuing a partnership with nearby institutions that might be interested in enrolling incarcerated students.

This opposition falls in line with other grievances held by departments of corrections and political leaders who express outrage when incarcerated people receive services comparable to those in the outside world. However, these critiques fail to acknowledge the noted success of prison education programs and the role they play in rehabilitating people’s lives. Research has shown that students in prison education programs are 48% less likely to recidivate and are more likely to find employment upon release and earn higher wages. Prison college programming has also shown to improve prison safety, reducing in-facility violence. 

The remarkable feat of studying and toiling away under confinement—conditions that are purposefully not designed for the spiritual and intellectual growth associated with higher education—should be lauded and better understood perhaps now more than ever. 

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.