Issue 13.2 | Spring 2016 / Guest edited by Soniya Munshi and Craig Willse

More than Access: College Programs in Prison and Transforming Education

By working to serve individual students, do we suggest the correctness and justness of the institutions and systems that they find themselves in and that we support with our own work? Conversely, by working to address the manifest injustices in such a system, do we neglect the individual lives presently caught within it? I would argue that, at least in spirit, these are questions almost any teacher in any institution could ask about the work they do.
—Kirk Branch, Eyes on the Ought to Be[1]

In scholarly research, answers are only as good as the further questions they provoke, while for activists, answers are as good as the tactics they make possible.
—Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag[2]

In keeping with the spirit of the epigraphs offered here, this essay raises more questions than it provides answers. Raising questions without answers may be one peculiar provenance of academic inquiry, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore points out. Here answers are primarily the vehicle for further questioning, one temporary constellation of meaning in the broader field of “research.” For activists as well, answers are temporary and situational. But here Gilmore suggests that answers are the vehicle for tactical intervention, one temporary constellation of meaning in the broader field of “politics.” Yet what happens in situations where scholarly research and tactical action overlap? What happens when the roles of “academic” and “activist” are blurred in institutional settings where traditional systems of higher education meet their limit? Kirk Branch’s scholarly research on teaching literacy across educational institutions and systems helps us puzzle out how educators find themselves asking such questions when they work to create broader access to higher education.[3] Branch’s research raises additional questions for this essay: how do we imagine and institute the aims of higher education in systems that reveal the historical tensions or even contradictions between “scholarly inquiry” and “political practice”? What happens when providing education is perceived as a political practice, not merely by teaching scholarly research but also by instituting new systems of educational access? And how can we improve our tactics for providing educational access so that it leads more broadly to education justice?

This essay begins with one answer—college programs in prison—and backtracks through scholarship and activism to discern what questions and tactics brought us here.[4] The term “prison education” encompasses a wide variety of educational programming offered inside carceral systems. This can include curricula focused on Graduate Equivalency Diplomas (GED), English as a Second Language (ESL), vocational training, certificate programs, theological studies, accredited college coursework, and accredited degree granting programs (AA, BA, and beyond). Education programs in prisons have diverse aims and institutional structures, from informal offerings in creative writing and reading groups to degree-granting programs affiliated with accredited higher education institutions on the outside (including community colleges and four-year universities). In the later twentieth century, following the 1971 Attica uprising and demands from people inside and outside to provide greater access to education, education programs in prisons flourished. Many of these programs were developed with explicit political goals: educational access for those living on the inside was a social justice or human rights issue, and education programming was one tactic among others seeking redistributive education, economic, and racial justice goals (an equity model) linked to broader aims of prison reform or abolition (with social justice outcomes). Others were developed with explicit educational goals: educational access for those living on the inside was a moral or rehabilitative issue, and education programming was one tactic among others seeking intellectual, ethical, and social reform of individuals (an uplift model) linked to broader aims of reduced recidivism and greater public safety (with social security outcomes). Some programs repudiate the concept of goals altogether: educational access for those living on the inside should not be different from those living on the outside; therefore, education programming cannot be a tactic in the service of anything but “education” (an equality model) linked to the variegated aims of the sponsoring educational institution (with social mobility outcomes).

These goals often co-exist in a single program, sometimes producing conflicts among staff, volunteers, and students or even leading to contradictions that must be solved by changes in program structure or collaborative leadership. These conflicts may stem from commitments held within these programs, but additional sources of conflict have often been imposed externally by changing funding streams connecting higher education and incarceration. Low-income and disenfranchised students who are US citizens were given federal need-based financial support for higher education by the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, which created Federal Educational Opportunity Grants and low-interest loans through the National Defense Student Loan Program. This act was amended in 1972 to rename the above programs the National Direct Student Loan Program and the Supplementary Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG) and to introduce a new Basic Educational Opportunity Grant linked to the SEOG, renamed in 1980 as the Pell Grant for Senator Claiborne Pell.[5] These grants initially provided access to higher education for low-income (and some middle-income) US students, although the funding stream still maintained an individual focus requiring each student to apply so that funds could be disbursed to institutions on a case-by-case basis. Incarcerated students were eligible for Pell Grants until 1994, when the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act restricted access to Pell Grants for incarcerated people. While incarcerated students comprised less than one percent of Pell Grant recipients and did not decrease the general pool of student aid, in 1994 Congress banned financial support for higher education inside prisons.[6] As a result, roughly 350 college programs in prison closed.[7] Programs that remain must often rely on eligibility-restrictive state and federal funding or on non-profit and philanthropic giving, each of which can impact the capacity of programs to set their own educational and political agendas.

The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act coincided with broader restrictions in access to higher education and expansions in mechanisms of policing and incarceration. During this closing decade of the twentieth century, the economic, political, and social reforms known as “neoliberalism” fundamentally restructured the relation between education and incarceration in the United States. Early formulations of neoliberal theory developed by Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman in the 1940s were slowly adopted by the United States during the late 1970s and 1980s, working to wed liberal ideals of freedom to neoclassical economics through a shift away from social collectivity and Keynesian government to radical individualism and macroeconomic strategies. Often referred to as privatization and deregulation, neoliberalism more accurately describes the shift from state-regulated redistribution “downward” (via taxation, social welfare, and entitlement programs) to semi-regulated market redistribution “upward” (via protections for capital and corporations).[8] David Harvey proposes four features of neoliberalization: 1) privatization and commodification; 2) financialization; 3) management and manipulation of crises; 4) state redistributions that “strip away the protective coverings that embedded liberalism allowed and occasionally nurtured.”[9] These features created “uneven geographic development”[10] and new surpluses in population and political power,[11] effects that led to the dismantling of public entitlements, such as education and welfare, and the construction of alternate versions of the social safety net: prisons. Economic and political commitments to prisons were on the rise while those targeting education waned.[12] From the 1980s onward, public education—including traditional institutions of higher education—became increasingly subject to economic reforms and evaluation on the grounds of efficiency rather than other measures of effectiveness, while incarceration seemed to promise neoliberalism a strangely efficient investment strategy for capitalizing on crises in populations and politics.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, we are at a peculiar crossroads. Over the past twenty years, carceral institutions have increased public warehousing of citizen and non-citizen alike, while higher education institutions have struggled to maintain public access to affordable, high-quality degrees. Rates of incarceration skyrocket when they include the entire population administered through jails, state and federal prisons, and ICE detention centers as carceral networks with imbricated policing and punishment regimes.[13] All measurements of incarceration during this period foreground racial disproportionality, with statistics on the high percentage of Black and Latino men detained and incarcerated.[14] Women are also reported to be the fastest-growing incarcerated population.[15] These statistics rarely offer a breakdown on cis- and transgender patterns or analysis of how racialized gender or sexual discrimination structures placement within men’s or women’s prisons versus institutions of higher education.[16] Feminist, queer, and transgender activists point out the dire consequences for equitable access to higher education when K-12 schools discipline and displace students who appear gender- and sexually nonconforming, specifically young people of color, at higher rates, often resulting in their disproportionate entrance into juvenile jails. Recent attention to the disciplinary inequities in punishment for African American girls suggests that official race and sex statistics do not adequately account for intersectional processes of education and carceral tracking.[17] College programs in prison do continue to offer post-secondary education to people behind bars around the country, with more programs being developed through new partnerships between colleges, non-profits, and Departments of Correction. Increased attention to disparities in access to higher education from inside prisons has created greater attention to college programming in women’s prisons, although it remains hard to find statistics or studies focused on how gender and sexuality shape access to college within “sex” segregated institutions. Based on anecdotal evidence, feminist, queer, and trans anti-racisms are operating within the paradigms of “access” but are less visible to the tracking mechanisms used to evaluate the relevance and effectiveness of higher education programs in prison.

So what exactly does higher education in prison look like in the aftermath of 1994? And what is the role of college programming in prison during this new century, while public higher education more generally is under concerted attack? These tactical questions have emerged through conversations taking place within and among students and teachers in higher education programs in prisons across the United States, brought into focus at national symposia held yearly from 2010 to 2015.[18] Discussions at these conferences focused on key issues facing higher education programs in prison, including how to evaluate effectiveness, how to develop strategies for action, the problem of fundraising, and inter-institutional effectiveness. Questions about differential access based on race, gender, and sexuality appear within each of these categories. In recent years, increasing numbers of colleges and universities have begun to develop programs for incarcerated students, with varied levels of engagement in this national conversation and/or accountability to local organizing efforts by imprisoned and formerly imprisoned people. The question of “professionalization” lurks on the horizon as programs face the opportunities (and obstacles) presented by increasing support from sponsoring institutions and state actors. On the one hand, such support may foster broader access to higher education programs inside prisons and enable collaboration among educators and activists who see access to professionalized higher education as part of politicized education justice. On the other hand, such support may lack long-term commitment to the individual and collective self-determination of imprisoned and formerly imprisoned people and/or privilege short-term priorities related to recidivism and fiscal efficiency that do not foster education justice more broadly. New legislation returning Pell grant eligibility to specific groups of currently incarcerated students promises to shift the landscape once again. The return of Pell eligibility for incarcerated students would likely broaden and diversify educational access while mobilizing efforts to ensure educational equity and structural accountability.[19]

This essay focuses specifically on the aspirations and actions of higher education programs in prisons as they struggle for survival and success in the context of neoliberal reforms. Here I consider how providing increased access to higher education—specifically, access that crosses prison walls—can become a tactic in broader education justice efforts, as well as how we might create mechanisms or systems that contribute to broader education justice movements if and as this work becomes institutionalized within our current K-16 schema. This essay was first drafted in 2011 as I reflected on my own work with higher education programs in Washington prisons, where a state legislative ban on public funding for degree-granting higher education inside prisons poses particular problems with “professionalizing” education as an extension of campus access (or conversely an extension of Department of Corrections reform). This obstacle has enabled prisoner-led educational initiatives to lead in the absence of more robust state-sanctioned programs, with a non-profit culture organized to support them by facilitating institutional access to course credit and credentialed teachers. As of 2014, there are three such programs in my region: the University Beyond Bars (in a men’s prison close to Seattle), the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound (in a women’s prison close to Tacoma), and the Black Prisoners’ Caucus T.E.A.C.H. program (in a men’s prison remote from any urban center).[20] Each program was organized by incarcerated leaders working with volunteers from communities, colleges, and universities; each program has had to negotiate the fraught and increasingly fragile relationship between sustainability and accountability in the context of neoliberal reforms.[21] Within this context, each program has debated “professionalism” as both question and tactic, asking what (or whose) educational and political aims are served by incorporation into existing institutional frameworks.

These debates have informed my thinking here, even as my specific focus on the intersection of universities and prisons reflects my own preoccupations as tenured faculty at a flagship state university in the late stages of neoliberal restructuring. This essay contributes to broader debates by focusing specifically on neoliberal incorporations of education justice efforts and the impact of such uneven incorporations on higher education programs in prisons.[22] Working from frameworks and questions raised by the 2007 INCITE! collection The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, this essay asks how transformations of public and private funding, often linked to the professionalization of activism and the privatization of education, impact efforts to offer college programs behind bars.[23] My argument unfolds across four sections. I begin by situating the most recent era of restricted education and mass incarceration within broader genealogies of reform and containment. Practices of education and incarceration have long been used to assign value to specific populations and to determine who is eligible for reform and who is subject to punishment. In the later twentieth century, broader restructuring of the governmental apparatus decreased public access to educational entitlements while increasing state capacity to contain and manage surplus populations through incarceration. The next section explores critiques of higher education programs in prison as complicit with this broader restructuring of mass incarceration and limited educational access. These programs are sometimes accused of expanding state surveillance of incarcerated intellectuals and upholding restrictions on the definition and value of higher education. Section three takes up these critiques of higher education programs in prisons and asks whether such programs can be positioned to transform the carceral and educational systems of neoliberalism. This section briefly surveys higher education programs in prisons and outlines the obstacles and the opportunities for cross-sectoral and inter-institutional transformation they face. I close considering strategies for intersectional coalition-building that are emerging as part of broader movements for education, economic, and racial justice.

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  1. Kirk Branch, Eyes on the Ought to Be: What We Teach When We Teach about Literacy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 7. [Return to text]
  2. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 27. [Return to text]
  3. Branch researches Seattle Goodwill Adult Learning Center (which used a Freirean model), Seattle Vocational Institute (SVI) (which became a pilot site for Integrated Curriculum for Achieving Necessary Skills [I-CANS]), a GED/general education program at the Douglas County Jail in Kansas (which blended educational and moral rehabilitation). [Return to text]
  4. This essay was originally drafted in 2011 as part of a Public Scholarship Grant from the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities called “Transformative Education Behind/Beyond Bars.” For grant language and minutes, see Essay excerpts have since been published as “Access or Justice? Inside-Out and Transformative Education,” Turning Teaching Inside Out: A Pedagogy of Transformation for Community-Based Education, ed. Simone Davis and Barbara Roswell (Palgrave, December 2013): 187–196, and in the “College in Prisons” section of “Beyond Crisis: College in Prison through the Abolition Undercommons,” written with Erica R. Meiners, Lateral: Cultural Studies Association Journal 3 (Spring 2014): [Return to text]
  5. A short history is provided by Michael Bennet on the “Pell Grant Eligibility” webpage: The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act increased the amount of Pell Grants in 2010, although this amount was already reduced in Spring 2011. For a full history see TG Research and Analytical Services, “Opening the Doors to Higher Education: Perspectives on the Higher Education Act 40 Years Later” (November 2005): [Return to text]
  6. Public rhetoric emphasized the condition of “less eligibility” to argue that the Pell Grant created unfair access for imprisoned people. Incarcerated veterans can receive some education benefits (depending on felony status), and people under 25 can receive support through federal Incarcerated Youthful Offender (IYO) grants (1998). The 2008 Reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA 2008) renamed IYO the Workforce and Community Transitions Training for Incarcerated Individual Program (IIP) and increased the age limit to 35. HEOA 2008 also introduced new limits to eligibility, including restrictions on those convicted of murder and some sexual offenses, as well as some in involuntary civil commitment centers (likely to target those formerly incarcerated on a sex offense). The 2008 Second Chance Act creates some grant programs targeting reentry. See Laura E. Gorgol and Brian A. Sponsler, “Unlocking Potential: Results of a National Survey of Postsecondary Education in State Prisons” (issue brief, Washington, DC: Institute for Higher Education Policy, May 2011); U.S. Department of Education, “Partnerships Between Community Colleges and Prisons: Providing Workforce Education and Training to Reduce Recidivism” (March 2009). [Return to text]
  7. Wendy Erisman and Jeanne Bayer Contardo, “Learning to Reduce Recidivism: A 50-State Analysis of Postsecondary Correctional Education Policy,” The Institute for Higher Education Policy (November 2005); Minatiya Dawkins and Erin McAuliff, “Higher Education Behind Bars: Postsecondary Prison Education Programs Make a Difference,” Centerpoint, American Council on Education, October 14, 2008. [Return to text]
  8. Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality? Neo-Liberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003); Clarence Lo, Small Property Versus Big Government: Social Origins of the Property Tax Revolt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). [Return to text]
  9. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 168. Harvey argues that China, Chile, the US, and the UK developed neoliberal policies and practices somewhat at odds with the early theoretical formulations. [Return to text]
  10. Ibid., 87. [Return to text]
  11. Gilmore, Golden Gulag, 113. [Return to text]
  12. Gorgol and Sponsler gather these statistics in their issue brief “Unlocking Potential”: 1) between 2005–2009 state spending on corrections increased 25 percent compared to an 18 percent increase on higher education (National Association of State Budget Officers, State Expenditure Report 2009); $1 out of $15 state discretionary funds is spent on corrections (the Pew Center on the States, One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008), 4. [Return to text]
  13. On these intersections, see Angélica Cházaro, “Beyond Respectability: Dismantling the Harms of Illegality,” Harvard Journal on Legislation 52 (forthcoming 2016) and Jenna M. Loyd, Matt Mitchelson, and Andrew Burridge, eds., Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders and Global Crisis (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012). Undocumented people in state prisons often have more restricted access to programs. [Return to text]
  14. The Sentencing Project lists these familiar statistics: 1) “The number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons increased by 13% from 1,317,300 to 1,483,900 between 2000 and 2012, although the totals have declined modestly since 2009”; 2) “In addition to the nearly 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons, there were 744,500 people in local jails in 2012, yielding a total incarcerated population of 2.2 million”; 3) “As of 2009, 1 of every 135 Americans was incarcerated in prison or jail”; 4) “1 in every 13 black males ages 30 to 34 was in prison in 2011, as were 1 in 36 Hispanic males and 1 in 90 white males in the same age group.” See “Facts about Prisons and Prisoners” The Sentencing Project (Washington, D.C.) accessed 10/1/15: Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics (January 2104). [Return to text]
  15. The Sentencing Project reports a 587 percent increase in rates of women’s incarceration between 1980 and 2011, almost 1.5 times that of men. While reporting that “in 2011, black women were incarcerated at 2.5 times the rate of white women (129 versus 51 per 100,000)” and “Hispanic women were incarcerated at 1.4 times the rate of white women (71 versus 51 per 100,000)” it also reports increases in rates of women’s incarceration for Latino and white women between 2000 and 2010. “Gender Differences” labels differences between “men” and “women” in variables related to prior life history, charges and sentencing. See “Incarcerated Women Factsheet,” The Sentencing Project (Washington, DC) accessed 10/1/15: “Incarcerated Women.”. For analysis, see Victoria Law, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2009); Beth E. Richie, Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation (New York: New York University Press, 2012). [Return to text]
  16. See “It’s War in Here”: A Report on the Treatment of Transgender and Intersex People in New York State Men’s Prisons (New York: Sylvia Rivera Law Project, 2007); Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock, Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011); Dean Spade, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of the Law (Boston: South End Press, 2011); Eric Stanley and Matt Smith, eds., Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2011). [Return to text]
  17. See Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, with Priscilla Ocen and Jyoti Nanda, “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected,” Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (African American Policy Forum, 2015):; Malika Saada Saar, Rebecca Epstein, Lindsay Rosenthal, and Yasmin Vafa, “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story,” Human Rights Project for Girls (Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality/Ms. Foundation for Women, 2015). [Return to text]
  18. The first “Symposium on Higher Education in Prison” was sponsored by the Education Justice Project at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign on October 8–10, 2010. Subsequent gatherings have been held at the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities (2011) and the St. Louis University Prison Program (2013). A fourth conference again sponsored by the Education Justice Project was planned for 2014 but canceled to support the boycott of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign on behalf of Steven Salaita. A complete listing of programs represented at the first national conference can be found in Cory Holding, Tracy Dace, Simon Schocken, and Rebecca Ginsburg, eds., “Prison Higher Education Programs: An Incomplete Assessment,” The Education Justice Project, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (October 2010). Kaia Stern of the Harvard University Prison Studies Project (which partners with Boston University’s Prison Education Program and the Massachusetts Department of Correction) has completed a National Directory of Higher Education in Prison. The national directory can be accessed at [Return to text]
  19. Education from the Inside Out Coalition, led by the Fortune Society and College and Community Fellowship (CCF), has led efforts to reinstitute Pell Grant eligibility and broader access to higher education for people in prison. For more information, see the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy (DRCPP) at On the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, see Rev. Vivian Nixon, “Let’s Get Real: Prison is No Place for Elitism,” Huffington Post, June 1, 2015. [Return to text]
  20. The University Beyond Bars has offered courses inside the Washington State Reformatory for men since 2003 (; the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound has offered courses inside the Washington Corrections Center for Women since 2011 (; and the Black Prisoners’ Caucus T.E.A.C.H. program has offered courses inside the Clallam Bay Correctional Center since 2012 ( [Return to text]
  21. Washington State is an exemplary neoliberal case study: it enacts its state’s rights to set zero income and corporate tax, cut financing for higher education, uphold three-strikes laws, and terminate options for parole, while it supports private-sector opportunities to create new markets (Amazon, Microsoft, and Google) and utilize the profits to create philanthropic solutions to the problems caused by public/private restructuring (the Gates Foundation). See, for example, the recent struggle over the commission of a new youth jail coupled with private condominium development from EPIC,, and WISH, For more on related Washington politics, see Columbia Legal services, [Return to text]
  22. Special issues on this topic include “Incarceration and Social Justice,” PMLA 123.3 (May 2008); Shana Agid, Michael Bennett, Kate Drabinski, eds., “Teaching Against the Prison Industrial Complex,” Radical Teacher 88 (Summer 2010); “Post-Secondary Education,” Journal of Correctional Education 62.2 (June 2011); Shana Agid, Kate Drabinski, and Gillian Harkins, “Teaching Inside Carceral Institutions,” Radical Teacher 95 (Winter 2012). [Return to text]
  23. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, eds., The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (Cambridge: South End Press, 2009). [Return to text]