Commentary: Let more prisoners take college classes

Tribune Content Agency

When Carrie C. is released from Missouri Department of Corrections’ Chillicothe Correctional Center, she will be leaving with more than just the clothes she was wearing when she entered. She’ll be carrying a college degree.

Carrie was a ninth-grade high school dropout who couldn’t even remember how to do division problems. Today she is on the Dean’s List with a 3.9 GPA. She is one of hundreds of students at the state prison for women to attend college classes, through a partnership between Ashland University and the Missouri DOC. And she is one of thousands of prisoners who have earned a degree through the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Grant Experiment.

Even a few short years ago, the idea of providing access to college in prison was controversial. But now, after a multiyear bipartisan effort led to the repeal of the ban of Pell grants to the incarcerated, the debate over whether colleges and universities should be allowed to offer programs in prison is settled. The main question now: how can these institutions offer education at the scale needed to meet the demand while maintaining the academic quality that transforms lives?

One study found a 43% reduction in recidivism rates for incarcerated individuals who participate in prison education programs. The more education they received, the more likely it was that they would not return.

Still, there are many challenges that corrections agencies, colleges, and universities must overcome. First, college in prison programs are not distributed evenly across the country. The Alliance for Higher Education in Prison estimates that more than one in three prisons with college programs are located in the south. Colleges and corrections agencies must win approval, gain accreditation and build programs. They must set aside classrooms, recruit students and faculty, design student services and supports, and begin teaching — all of which takes time, money and leadership.

Second, as Charlotte West of Open Campus has reported, available information and understanding about Pell grants varies widely from prison to prison. And third, Pell grants availability does not automatically mean that every prison will now have a college program.

To have even a shot at receiving an education, prisoners must first be incarcerated at facilities that offer a college program and that participate in the Pell Grant experiment or some other funding mechanism. They must have a sentence that meets DOC’s rules for having access to higher education. Other conditions and restrictions apply.

Given the proven benefits of affording prisoners with access to college classes, we can and should do everything possible to break down these barriers. We must make sure our platforms are delivering the tools that students need at a cost that students and colleges can afford. We need to provide reliable and predictable access to Wi-Fi and approved educational internet sites across custody levels.

Securus Technologies, a company “dedicated to helping incarcerated individuals transform their lives for a brighter future,” at which I work, has endeavored to tackle these challenges, and we have made enormous progress. Our Securus Lantern program is the largest learning management system and digital education program for the incarcerated in the United States. But there’s more to do.

Carrie is lucky for the opportunity she had at Chillicothe to obtain a college degree. She will leave driven, focused and determined to succeed. Her main goal is to have a career, not just a job.

There are hundreds of other currently incarcerated individuals who are equally as driven but who lack the opportunity to obtain a higher education. We can do better. College and corrections officials must work with students, faculty, publishers, and technology companies to break down these barriers, brick by brick.


(Brian Walsh, formerly program manager with the nonprofit Vera Institute and a policy associate at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, is now director of customer platform, education and reentry at Securus Technologies)