By Charlotte West
College Inside Editor
Reprinted by permission
■ The fragility of
A student who — after someone he knows gets a job at the prison where he is incarcerated — is transferred midway through his college course.
A student who is told he can’t enroll in classes the next term because his cellmate brought back “contraband” food from the chow hall and he has a possible disciplinary infraction. (His name is eventually cleared.)
A woman who served an additional year in prison because she didn’t receive time off her sentence for earning a degree after her college program shut down.
These are just a few of examples of how education inside can be delayed or ended altogether. The collateral consequences go far beyond not finishing a degree.
Earlier this year, I started reporting on the closure of the Washington State Reformatory and the way it disrupted education for the students of University Beyond Bars, the college program that operated there. It was an extreme example of the type of interruptions that occur on a daily basis in prison.
There were a lot of potential issues to dig into. Should a college program be a reason to keep a prison open? What are the trade-offs that incarcerated students have to make about their education? Do they transfer to another prison that has a program they want even if it’s far away from friends and family?
But what stood out most to me was just how little control students have over their education in prison. Unlike their peers on the outside, incarcerated students don’t have freedom of choice when it comes to college or major. If you want to study sociology but the only thing available is a welding program, you study welding.
And there’s unequal access to college options across states and even within facilities, exacerbated by things such as length of sentence and conviction.
For the final story that we co-published with the Seattle Times, I wanted to focus on what happened to the 50 students who were transferred to other prisons all over Washington state. Tracking them down wasn’t easy, but thankfully the prison grapevine is alive and well. Using JPay, a secure email service, I wrote to over 50 people who referred me to their former classmates.
The results were disappointing but not surprising. Over half of the 38 associate students in the program had been unable to continue their education.
Twelve of the men were receiving a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts through Adams State University at the time of the closure — none of them have been able to finish their degrees as they lost access to the private scholarship funding their correspondence courses. A handful of the advanced students were within a few courses of earning their bachelor’s, and some had helped with grant writing and fundraising in the years prior to the closure.
One student who got out said they were waiting until they got more familiar with technology before they continued their education outside. Another still inside said he’s taking whatever classes he can inside and hopes they’ll count towards his degree. Many of the others who weren’t able to enroll have given up, want to transfer to a different prison with the program they want, or are waiting to see if Pell Grant restoration brings more opportunities.
■ ‘Working toward solutions’
The story of University Beyond Bars and the Washington State Reformatory raises questions about who — correctional agencies, colleges, or non-profit partners — is responsible for ensuring continuity in prison education. The landscape will become increasingly complicated as Pell Grant access expands next year.
Ultimately, the department of corrections has exclusive control over where the students are transferred. When the reformatory closed, officials said they “were committed to working toward solutions” with partners such as the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges, which coordinates the state’s 34 colleges.
Under normal circumstances, the Washington corrections department has an education hold that prevents students from being transferred while they are enrolled during a degree program. But when the reformatory shut down, students were sent all over the state.
Although University Beyond Bars provided the department of corrections with a list of the students enrolled during the final term the program operated, students said that no one from the department, or any of the colleges serving the prisons where they were transferred, ever followed up with them.
When I contacted Seattle Central about the impact of the closure, the campus spokesperson referred the inquiry to University Beyond Bars. The college staff, with the exception of faculty, were working on top of their regular job duties and had little to no direct contact with students. Without having a dedicated staff member working with incarcerated students, college staff didn’t know who their students were.
When the prison closed, University Beyond Bars staff lost access to the students. The staff tried to ensure that all associate’s students were equipped with copies of their transcripts and an understanding of what classes they still needed to finish their degrees, but couldn’t otherwise provide further support.
With full Pell Grant expansion next year, colleges and their partners will need to figure out how to minimize disruptions and find ways to allow students to continue to build on the work they’ve already done.