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

More than Access: College Programs in Prison and Transforming Education

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III. Programs in Prison

So what are the institutional constraints and possibilities of higher education programs in prison within this context? What does public access to higher education mean at this juncture, when the aims and practices of higher education are under a more general assault and mandated neoliberal revision? What follows is a very cursory summary of the basic contours of higher education programs in prison, with a specific focus on programs that provide college credit, certificates, and degrees. Struggles to provide and ensure general access to the completion of a GED are ongoing across states; frequently, this curriculum is delivered through state contracts with specific community colleges or educational facilities. Higher education programs in prison, or post-GED programming, attempt to enter this complex field and develop: 1) institutional relationships that enable high-quality education to be delivered inside prisons, which requires by definition the permission of the Department of Corrections and, if college credit is sought, a matriculation agreement with an accredited college or university; 2) organizational structures that match the expectations of one or all of the following: private funders, state funders, accreditation partners (college or university), and/or 501(c)(3) bylaws and boards of directors; 3) program goals that define recognizable and measurable outcomes that demonstrate the “effectiveness” and “efficiency” of the program delivery model so that it can be sustained over time (i.e., meeting the expectations of financial and institutional partners); and finally, 4) curricular offerings and pedagogical approaches that offer the best access to the broadest range of courses that meet the goals, needs, and interests of students. This last also requires the recruitment, training, and supervision of qualified and appropriate educators (paid or volunteer).

Overall, the structures of programs vary widely. A 2011 issue brief from the Institute for Higher Education Policy on “Unlocking Potential: Results of a National Survey of Postsecondary Education in State Prisons” reports the results of a web-based national survey of corrections education administrators from 43 states (Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Virginia did not respond). The survey gathered information from state officials on student enrollment/completion, methods of instruction, eligibility restrictions, and funding sources. This brief emphasizes disparities in incarcerated students’ access to higher education, specifically academic higher education programs, reporting that “incarcerated students are not earning two- or four-year post-secondary degrees in significant numbers.”[68] One primary obstacle to access is funding. The table depicting funding sources for post-secondary correctional education programs notes that both high- and low-enrollment states rely on federal funding for post-secondary education (93–100 percent), while states with high-enrollment in post-secondary education programs are 77 percent supported by state funding (as opposed to only 23 percent in low-enrollment states). This suggests that state regulations or opportunities for funding for higher education have a significant impact on access. Funding by colleges or universities and by philanthropy are more evenly matched: for high enrollment programs, 38 percent by college/universities and philanthropy alike, while low enrollment programs receive 20 percent from college/university and 23 percent from philanthropy.[69]

A related restriction is “factors affecting prisoner eligibility.” In fact, the table explaining funding sources seems to correlate to the specific eligibility restrictions found in the second table. The eligibility restrictions table lists “time to release,” “inmate’s age,” and “reason for incarceration” as the most significant factors affecting prisoner eligibility across low- and high-enrollment states.[70] This suggests at least a correlation between available funding sources and restricted access to programs; the majority of post-secondary access, that supported by federal and state funding, often restricts eligibility for students (lifers and those convicted of sex offenses are routinely excluded). Programs more likely to be open to all students, funded by college/university or philanthropy, are at a maximum providing 38 percent of all programming. It seems likely that academic programming (rather than or in addition to vocational) is also offered through these smaller funding streams, although this seeming correlation needs further study to demonstrate a causal link and is not clearly demonstrated by these charts.

Here I will focus on this smaller sub-set of programs which work through colleges, universities, or philanthropic support. These programs offer the most open eligibility for students on the inside according to DOC measures (“time to release,” “inmate’s age,” and “reason for incarceration”), although they may offer selective admission through more standard academic criteria (college readiness, application essays, etc.). Some of these programs began as projects of specific universities (Boston University, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, Bard College), some as volunteer programs that developed a university and/or community college partnership (Cornell University and Princeton University), some as extension sites of a specific university or college (Prison University Project/Patten University and the College Program at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility/Marymount Manhattan College), and non-profits partnering with distance learning programs for the incarcerated (University Beyond Bars). These structures each afford specific benefits. The chief distinction between arrangements seems to be the amount of control over the assignment and training of teachers, the relative pay for teachers and program staff, and the permanence or sustainability of the program. The DOC infrastructure of each program also varies, with some patterns of long-term relationship building in evidence (such as offering low or no cost higher education opportunities to correctional staff) and some seemingly sustained commitments to educational partnership (bringing in theater groups, allowing art shows, multiple volunteer programs, etc.). Program funding varies as well: some programs are funded entirely by their host university (staff, teachers, and tuition), some receive tuition waivers or reductions but must fundraise their own staff salaries, and some operate primarily through volunteers with limited staff or teacher salary needs.

One of the most pressing issues facing college programs in prison is how to use limited space and funding to enable the maximum number of students to complete degrees. Some programs aim at open access to as many students as possible. The Prison University Project, operating out of San Quentin with the partnership of Patten University, offers open access to a college readiness curriculum for all post-GED students, who may enroll in AA classes once they complete the college readiness curriculum. The sponsoring university covers tuition, teachers work as volunteers, and money for staff and materials is developed through private grants and individual donors. Other programs offer more restricted access to their degree-granting programs, such as the Boston University Prison Program. Their program has competitive admission but is partnered with a cluster of other programs that serve the broader prison population (including the Partakers program, a religious organization that provides college readiness training). Boston University covers staff and tuition, although teachers are paid slightly less than for campus-based courses. Programs that do not have free tuition from a partner university—which is most often a private institution—must fundraise tuition from private foundations (one family foundation supports much of this work). Programs that depend upon federal or state monies—through the Workforce and Community Transitions Training for Incarcerated Individual Program (IIP) at the federal level or specific state distributions within corrections—often must enforce restricted eligibility. This frequently restricts educational access for anyone who is undocumented or sentenced to life without the possibility of parole or on a sexual offense.[71]

This is the problem confronted by efforts to create access to college education in particular: neoliberal college education is not free. In the context of formal credit-bearing institutions, value assigned to learning is also assigned a specific monetary value. Learning outcomes are overall subsidiary to program outcomes (here tied to broader institutional outcomes), measured by students enrolled and dollars delivered. College credit can be purchased without any demonstrable learning taking place, as has been the complaint about some private online universities as well as increasing numbers of private and public campus universities, where students understand themselves as consumers purchasing credits and credentials rather than learners engaged in education. But college credit cannot be earned through learning alone, without a monetary transaction, except in the rare case of honorary degrees. Course credit by examination, the lowest-cost formula, still requires a fee for “testing out” of a course based on learning beyond the classroom. Prison-based programs could forego college credit and focus instead on the value of learning at the college level. But many students and participants in these programs feel strongly that college credit is a key value—it appears to promise improved confidence and greater job access post-release as well as a credential whose value transfers across the walls. While college credit does not guarantee improved post-release outcomes, and beliefs in the magical powers of formal higher education are often overstated, there is no doubt that receiving college credit for their learning is important to students on the inside.

IV. Transforming Education

The problem remains that we cannot transform the conditions of education on the inside if we do not transform them on the outside, and vice versa. This requires the transformation of the naturalized relations among institutions of incarceration and institutions of education, and ultimately the abolition of the prison-industrial complex and reorganization of educational institutions as they currently exist. In closing, I’d like to consider the possibilities of and obstacles to transforming education within the systems of educational access and education justice outlined above. Transforming education aims at transforming relations between institutions and systems, not merely individual students or teachers operating within and across those institutions and systems.[72] This distinction is particularly important in discussions of “transformation” through education programs in prison: transformation here is meant to be institutional and systemic, not a transformation of students through access to education within a social security/social mobility paradigm. The implicit argument is that the aims of social justice articulated by such programs can be strengthened when they address the structural relationships among institutions of education and incarceration. Higher education in prison programs are in a unique position to transform the mechanisms naturalizing relations among prisons and universities/colleges. By creating and sustaining such programs within and across the institutional interfaces of prison and university/college, scholars and activists have an opportunity to design for and practice abolition justice at an institutional level.

This is my proposed tactical answer to the questions raised by Kirk Branch in the first epigraph to this essay: “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?” This essay was meant to shift the grounds of such questions so that we might also pose new ones: how do these institutions and systems intersect in programs for currently incarcerated students? How can this intersection be leveraged to create mechanisms that actually transform the relations between individuals and systems? This means creating mechanisms in which currently and formerly incarcerated people are leaders in program development, participants in asking the questions and designing the tactics that not only answer them, but raise new questions and tactics. This is a programmatic goal of creating equity rather than equality in the design and implementation of higher education overall, with an aim at transforming the systemic and institutionalized inequities already installed as higher education and replicated in rhetorics of access. This seems urgent for everyone caught up in these systems and institutions, in which our respective roles as beneficiary or target are intertwined to such a degree that “access” can become an alibi for an ongoing process that diminishes life opportunities for all.

This leads me to the question that prompted this essay in the first place: who is the “we” empowered to transform education in the posing of such questions? Often, the people working collaboratively to negotiate and transform institutional mechanisms do not share background assumptions, positions, or orientations to the various institutions in question (collaborations often include people currently, formerly, and never incarcerated with various relations to formal higher education).[73] This is exacerbated as various intersectional approaches to race, class, gender, and sexuality must be processed through the formal “sex” segregated institutional spaces of prison. Higher education programs in prisons operate in an inter-institutional realm and include people with very different aims: some wish to abolish the current carceral system (of mass incarceration through the prison-industrial complex); some wish to reform that system (to make it more humanistic, more rehabilitative, less costly, etc.); and some wish to ensure access to quality education and have no position on the carceral system at all. Many (but not all) are mobilized by anti-racist approaches to incarceration, but not all anti-racisms are intersectional or include analyses of how gender and sexuality shape relations within and among various institutions, nor do these approaches consistently share an understanding of the prison-industrial complex or systemic analyses of racial capitalism. What follows is a closing thought experiment that takes seriously Rodríguez’s suggestion that we work toward “centering the antisystemic” as we think about transforming education.[74] This experiment is my own, not intended to represent the general thinking in higher education programs in prison. But I offer this narrative as my way of exploring how participants in higher education programs might redefine and strengthen their accountabilities to key constituencies and work toward transformative and education justice. This is in keeping with Ana Clarissa Rojas Durazo’s question: “is the daily minutiae of our work consistent with our vision for a more just and peaceful reality?”[75]

Let’s return for a moment to the four goals for higher education programs in prison I listed above: 1) institutional relationships; 2) organizational structures; 3) program outcomes; and 4) curriculum and pedagogy. Most practitioners would agree with me, I think, that the fourth—developing interesting and relevant curriculum and pedagogy that meets the goals, needs, and interests of students—is the real goal. This could include non-credit arts and literature programming, workshops on specific job skills, discussion groups on social justice and activism, non-credit courses on Chicano history or women’s studies, college readiness curricula, or standard offerings toward an AA or BA degree. However, establishing and evaluating these educational goals is extremely complex. It requires scholars and activists from the outside to be able to communicate well with scholars and activists on the inside about goals, needs, and interests, itself a fundamental obstacle given the stark disparities of power and access the prison literalizes. In the three programs I work with in Washington, University Beyond Bars (UBB), the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound (FEPPS), and the Black Prisoners’ Caucus T.E.A.C.H. program, there is an established leadership team or advisory committee on the inside that meets regularly to discuss curricular needs, pedagogical feedback, and overall program goals with program staff /volunteers/sponsors from outside. These arrangements can be somewhat rare, however, and depend upon a relationship between the program founders and administrators at the local correctional facility. Thus, achieving this brings us back to the first goal: developing an institutional relationship with the DOC.[76]

Establishing and evaluating such educational goals also requires scholars and activists working within the prison context to be able to communicate well with scholars and activists not already involved in this work about the goals, needs, and interests of students currently behind bars. If college credit is sought, a college or university must be willing to evaluate and endorse the quality of the program. This often requires the second and third goals above, a clear program structure with plans for accountability so that operations are transparent to people on the outside. The need to communicate clear structure and operations in line with those of sponsoring institutions can sideline efforts to create more complex operating procedures designed to build equity among all participants. This becomes a particular problem if people involved in the program do not have the time to figure out what meaningful equity would look like in their context, which might include more substantive collaboration on gender and sexual diversity in the program. And if college credit is going to be given, this creates the first inevitable need for funding: volunteer labor can create a relationship with the DOC and volunteer academics can create a relationship with an accreditation partner, but without state support (Pell Grants or other funding) tuition costs private money.

So now we have the need for fundraising, which requires more structure. Time that could be spent developing better relationships with students to ensure collaboration about needs and assessment, creating relationships with the families and communities of students, partnering with other projects working against mass incarceration and for mass quality and free education, working within existing colleges and universities for greater diversity and access (including in curriculum and pedagogy), and working to support legislation that will interrupt the neoliberal takeover of governance … this time is spent on the second and third goals above (organizational structure and measurable program goals). Assessment, perhaps the single most important mechanism for transforming the quality and purpose of educational programs, becomes linked to the goals of funders or institutional partners. This draws higher education in prison programs into alignment with neoliberal restructuring of educational opportunities more broadly by replicating an economic framework for evaluation. The learning outcomes that so many higher education programs in prison want to develop and share collaboratively—among themselves, with their students, with colleagues at accredited institutions—are superseded or tailored to suit program outcomes. Funders and many institutional partners want to see program outcomes measured in numbers of student credit hours completed or numbers of degrees granted—or, in the recidivism rates linking program completion to alleged social safety outcomes after release.

This is how many studies evaluate the success of education programs in prison: by measuring how student credit hours and degrees correlate to recidivism (sometimes presumed to exclude those sentenced to life without the possibility of parole). This “evidence-based” turn in program evaluation can usefully interrupt ideological and ungrounded arguments against broader access to higher education.[77] But how we define desirable outcomes and how we quantify them as “evidence” is crucial to achieving robust justice goals. Learning is hard to measure, as is critical thinking or historical understanding, and therefore higher education programs measured from the outside are often pressed to deliver the largest number of credit-bearing courses to the most students (with the shortest sentences) possible. Assessment—being able to develop and assess the effectiveness of specific teachers, pedagogies, and courses, being flexible enough to revise and revisit decisions that do not serve students’ goals—becomes a practice of program sustainability. Students may get access to college credit, but they do so at the (potential) cost of quality programs developing the very best curricular and pedagogical approaches for the situation.

Thus the bind for college programs in prison: their educational professionalization—through the hybrid institutionalizations of philanthropy/DOC/university—can effectively result in their educational depoliticization. In her introduction to The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, Andrea Smith points out that “while fundraising is part of organizing, fundraising is not a precondition for organizing.”[78] It is, however, a precondition for a college degree. And in the neoliberal context sketched here, it can force educational programs to decide between providing relevant and effective education regardless of college credit, or providing “college education” regardless of its relevance or effectiveness. This works to suspend the political goals that may be aligned with creating access to education inside prisons. Programs may be pressed into educational delivery, rather than educational innovation and transformation. This can severely limit the time and energy for transforming education among participants in programs, making it very hard to focus on whether “the daily minutiae of our work [is] consistent with our vision for a more just and peaceful reality.” Such pressure can also restrict program capacity to participate in shaping how education is valued and evaluated within public higher education institutions more broadly, including debates about evidence-based assessment and relevant curriculum and pedagogy for a wide range of students. Programs are pressed in effect to design for prisons, as Rodríguez complains, rather than against them and their relationship to limited higher education more generally.

And there’s the rub: higher education programs in prison are at worst pressed into providing either transferable value without value transformation, or value transformation without transferable value. Programs in prison might have to prioritize providing access to standardized higher education credits—value that transfers across institutional walls—over seeking to transform the values assigned to learning through the tuition-for-credit system (since they might create program-specific values that do not transfer easily to other educational institutions). To be clear, college programs inside prisons should not be treated as exceptional spaces for transforming education, nor should incarcerated students be categorically differentiated from students matriculated on and off campuses across the higher education spectrum.[79] My point is that transformation and transferability should be linked in every educational context, yet college in prison programs face unusual restrictions on participating in efforts to transform the values of higher education more generally. Higher education programs in prison often face more restrictive limits on their ability to ensure transformation is transferable than outside university and college programs, which often have room to innovate despite (and at times even through) the pressures of neoliberal reform. Even more troubling, college in prison programs are often treated as exceptions to or extensions of the more central concerns of higher education. This effectively shuts currently incarcerated people out of leadership roles in assessing and addressing the way access to higher education can be mobilized against neoliberal restructuring.

Despite these obstacles, many college in prison programs have undertaken important work facilitating new modes of education and working both through and against existing parameters of higher education in neoliberal times. Such programs work to connect scholars and activists on the inside to those on the outside to link and leverage their practices for broader social change. The biggest problem they face is how to create transformative systems across the diffuse institutions and practices of higher education. But there are strategies (many already underway) that can help build political connections without sacrificing program diversity. In closing, I will simply list a few current strategies undertaken by higher education programs in prisons to develop broader political alliances and participate in shared movement-building for social, economic, and educational justice: 1) national coalition-building; 2) shared assessment protocols; 3) constituency-based accountability; 4) inter-institutional collaboration.

First, college programs in prison are beginning to work together to share best educational and program practices; this includes supporting the initiative to return Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated people. Collaboration reduces isolation and clarifies how shared practices might work to transform and transfer values at a collective level. Second, such a coalition can develop assessment protocols that introduce our own measures for success. This is crucial if practices are to be developed that transform education on terms that work for program participants (rather than funders or outside institutions).[80] Program assessment might include not only student learning outcomes but also community-based outcomes, including impact on cross-generational access to education and economic self-determination, and inter-institutional outcomes, including impact on curriculum and pedagogy as well as community outreach and involvement in recruitment and retention. It can also center intersectional approaches to equity within higher education programs in prison. Third, each program can develop its own constituency-based accountabilities to allow for a range of educational and political goals across programs without sacrificing their ability to work together for broader collective impact. This would involve building relationship with families and communities impacted by educational inequity and mass incarceration as well as broader social movements in their area.[81] Linking constituency-based accountabilities with broader social movements enables programs to center those most impacted by the prison-industrial complex—including those often marginalized on the basis of gender or sexuality—while committing to participate in long-term movement building. As part of this commitment, programs can include cross-training and collective education to dismantle internalized power dynamics created by institutional experience.

Finally, each program can seek equitable collaboration, rather than sponsorship, from its accreditation partner.[82] This is one of the more challenging but most promising avenues for transforming the values of higher education. There is an opportunity to draw attention to broad-based challenges to publicly accessible and affordable higher education, clarifying relations between students across institutions designed for education and incarceration. The assault on the humanities in particular might be addressed through such mass mobilization of all constituencies left out of the educational arenas linked to economic self-determination and market-based mobility. Public higher education institutions can be pressed to evaluate the constituencies they serve and to develop multi-site programs to reach more potential students regardless of tuition (rather than developing multi-site programs that maximize tuition dollars). This might open higher education to broader constituencies seeking transformation of institutional values as they shape the walls between colleges and prisons. Public higher education loses a valuable political ally when it does not partner with the scholars and activists currently or previously behind prison walls. And everyone loses possibilities for education justice if we accept that the walls will always stand. Advocating for transforming education can be a part of a broader abolitionist vision; we must hold ourselves accountable to this vision as we work within and across existing institutions for education, economic, and racial justice.


Since I wrote this piece in 2011, the questions and tactics of activism and academia have continually shifted. Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s 2007 provocation to situate answers as conditions of possibility haunts its publication in 2015. The answer I considered here–college in prison programs–is still relevant. Perhaps its relevance as an answer to both stated and unstated questions has grown since 2011; the answer “college in prison” is proffered more frequently as a reasonable response to the unreasonable outcomes of mass incarceration, gaining in popularity alongside bipartisan approaches to reducing incarceration as a political solution to social and economic problems. But what has it become as a tactic? And what new questions do these conditions raise? Situated among neo-centrist rationalities of 2015, college in prison provides a condition of possibility for new tactics and questions aimed at abolition, not just reform, even as the ground gained shifts through differential geographies on the move. The temporal disjointedness introduced by such differential geographies, including the disjunct between academic publication and activist mobilization, mark the limits of this essay in ways that I hope prove useful to activists and academics creating new possibilities from present answers.

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  1. Gorgol and Sponsler, “Unlocking Potential,” 3. [Return to text]
  2. Ibid., reported in Table 4, 15. [Return to text]
  3. Ibid., reported in Table 3, 14. Receiving infractions while incarcerated restricts access to programs also; this chart lists “in-prison infraction” at 85 percent for high enrollment programs, 27 percent for low enrollment. In-prison infractions can create a discretionary and often discriminatory system inside prisons tracking non-conforming “behavior” (including gender variance) into more restrictive and punitive carceration (IMU, transfer) rather than programs. [Return to text]
  4. Gorgol and Sponsler, “Unlocking Potential.” [Return to text]
  5. We used the phrase “transformative education” in the 2010–2013 University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities grant to focus on the institutional conditions of transformation. Other theories of transformative learning and transformative education promote learning mechanisms that create cognitive, affective, and experiential transformation for students within post-secondary education institutions and systems. Foundational arguments can be found in J. Mezirow, Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991); a summary of the changing field in E. W. Taylor, “An Update of Transformative Learning Theory: A Critical Review of the Empirical Research (1999–2005),” International Journal of Lifelong Education 26.2 (March 2007): 173–191. [Return to text]
  6. For a discussion of some academic projections onto prison work, see Jody Lewen, “Academics Belong in Prison: On Creating a University at San Quentin,” PMLA 123. 3 (May 2008): 689–695. [Return to text]
  7. Rodríguez, Forced Passages, 3. [Return to text]
  8. Ana Clarissa Rojas Durazo, “‘We Were Never Meant to Survive’: Fighting Violence Against Women and the Fourth World War,” in INCITE!, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, 113. [Return to text]
  9. This can come with its own assessment expectations, since the DOC benefits from tracking volunteer hours dedicated to “rehabilitation” as part of its delivery on core mission (which may otherwise not be funded or provided). [Return to text]
  10. Punitive approaches that are political or ideological contrast with empirical or “evidence-based” approaches. This is an important corrective to ungrounded ideological positions but restricts political goals to those that can be empirically proven (creating restrictive mechanisms and metrics for political values). See, for example, Ralph C. Stern, “Evidence-Based Practice: Principles for Enhancing Correctional Results in Prisons,” US Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections (December 2005) and Washington State Institute for Public Policy, “Evidence-Based Adult Corrections Programs: What Works and What Does Not,” (Olympia, WA, January 2006). [Return to text]
  11. Andrea Smith, “Introduction,” in INCITE!, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, 11. [Return to text]
  12. I take Daniel Karpowitz’s warning against creating “special” or “experimental” programming for incarcerated students very seriously. See Daniel Karpowitz, “Prison, College, and the Paradox of Punishment” in Austin Sarat, ed., Crime and Punishment: Perspectives from the Humanities, vol. 37 of Studies in Law, Politics and Society (New York: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2005): 305–331. [Return to text]
  13. For recent Correctional Education Association discussions of assessment, see Allison Daniel Anders and George W. Noblit, “Understanding Effective Higher Education Programs in Prisons” and Stephen J. Meyer, “Factors Affecting Student Success in Postsecondary Academic Correctional Education Programs,” Journal of Correctional Education 62.2 (June 2011): 77–93 and 132–164, respectively. [Return to text]
  14. The Georgia prisoners’ strike list of demands included access to higher education as well as improved healthcare, GED and skills training, freedom from violence, and other core entitlements. Related core demands emerged from the California prison hunger strikes. Determining what constituency programs wish to be accountable to can help them align their core work more effectively with other groups to achieve shared goals. This can also shape decisions about fundraising, including moves toward grassroots fundraising efforts that make programs directly accountable to their constituencies. [Return to text]
  15. The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program and programs like the Harvard Prison Project create educational frameworks that allow students enrolled in “free-world” and prison college programs to learn together. [Return to text]