Reflections on NCHEP 2016

For the first time since I began this work, I found myself surrounded by people who not only completely understood my reasoning and passions, but were actively pursuing them!

The National Conference on Higher Education in Prison was one of the most affirming and gratifying experiences as a scholar and practitioner that I could have hoped for. I had the opportunity to meet so many incredible people whose works I have read, cited, and studied. There were no egos…no reservations…and no hypocrisies. I left feeling vindicated, affirmed, and ready to continue this demanding work. After the most somber election I have ever experienced, I am happy to reflect on my visit to NCHEP and will continue to fight for what is right.

SUNY Bans the Box

While I do not necessarily write about the admissions barriers that formerly incarcerated individuals face, it is a huge challenge for so many who want to gain an education. Many individuals “self-select” or do not even apply because they believe they will have no chance of gaining admission if they answer honestly on their application to the ever-popular question, “Have you been convicted of a felony?”

This question, even with follow-up text entry, is a gross over generalization of the criminal justice system in the United States and the systemic cultural norms that increase the chances of being convicted for already marginalized communities. Formerly incarcerated individuals have already crossed so many barriers before they begin thinking about post-secondary education and this issue presents an even bigger challenge. Answering honestly hurts their chances of being admitted while answering dishonestly creates the risk of being expelled due to academic integrity.

I am thrilled that one of the largest public university systems, the State University of New York (SUNY), has decided to “ban the box” on their applications. This means that SUNY will no longer be asking individuals if they were previously convicted. In 2013, SUNY was the largest public university system in the United States, serving 467,991 students. In the same year, New York was the sixth highest incarcerating state with 81,400 inmates. While not all of those will be released, this opens so many doors for so many people. As a former employee of SUNY, I am elated to see them taking such a progressive approach.

While still celebrating this huge destruction of one of the major walls to post-secondary education, individuals applying for campus housing and for certain majors requiring internships, field work, or licensure will still have to answer this question. However, this is a start.

End of Private Prisons

In today’s most exciting news, the Justice Department has announced that they will end it’s use of private prisons! That is gigantic news for us prison reform activists as the privatization of prisons has lead to a dramatic increase in violence, depression, and recidivism, in addition to a decrease in inmate safety. Good job, Justice Department!

Coding Education in Prisons

After discussing the technological needs for education in prisons, I was thrilled to see an article on coding courses being offered in Washington to inmates (link to full article at the bottom) on

Here is a perfect example of harmony between the employment system and corrections system in the United States. We need more coders and we need less inmates. Therefore, prisons are the perfect places to teach coding as the incarcerated individuals are really excited to learn this new skill and be employable after release.

This is exemplified in a quote by one of the participants in saying, “I’m not usually the type to walk around talking about how much this or that changed my life, like some kind of self help infomercial…but this really did. It changed everything. It allowed me to realize my potential.”

This potential is what we want to see and support! This is why prison education is so important. The potential is there!!

Technological Necessities for Prison Education

Next City, an amazing nonprofit organization reanalyzing cities, just came out with a great article entitled “Digitizing the 21st-Century Prison” (article link at the bottom). While there is a fair amount of research out there on the impact of technology in prisons on both programming and inmates themselves, I was really happy to see this article take an educational approach.

One of the biggest challenges that prison education programs face is mirroring a traditional classroom environment in a correctional institution. In previous years, classrooms did not require technology. The only necessities were students and teachers. In current institutions though, technology plays a massive role in the everyday classroom, especially in online learning (where a lot of education in prisons happens). How do we bring the internet and updated educational technology into prisons? Next City provides some really interesting solutions.

Removing the Bars: Funding Formerly Incarcerated Students

Though it was announced almost a year ago, we are finally beginning to see the positive effects of President Obama’s Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. For those who do not know, in August 2015, President Obama announced a new initiative to counteract the Higher Education Act (HEA). This two-decade-old act basically deemed that any student who had previously been incarcerated in a Federal or State penal institution could not participate in the Federal Pell Grant program, essentially barring this fairly large population (primarily made up of already marginalized individuals via race, socioeconomic status, etc.) from receiving Pell grants, an often necessary funding resource to attend college.

The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program invited two and four-year institutions to apply to participate as an experimental site the list of those chosen colleges and universities was released last month. 67 institutions from all over the country were selected and will begin giving Pell grants to admissible students this coming fall. The full list of institutions can be found HERE.

Hopefully, you will see your institution or a nearby one on this list. If not, the Department of Education does expect to add even more colleges and universities to the list over the next year. If you do not work or study at an institution on this list, you may be asking yourself, “Why is does this matter? Why should I care?”

Why this is important:

In its most basic form, providing the financial support to give these individuals the opportunity to attend college is important because:

  1. While education is not a constitutional right, it should be.
  2. This equalizes the playing field just a little bit.
  3. Removes one of many barriers formerly incarcerated individuals face in everyday life post-release.
  4. Education works and we should be spending more on it!

Ultimately, the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program is important because education, especially higher education, has a major impact on recidivism or the chance that a previously incarcerated individual will return to the criminal justice system. While the percentage varies based on the research, policy agencies have found that education can lower the recidivism rate all the way down to 3% meaning a peaceful and just world in general.

This is also important because we are already spending way too much on the prison industrial complex and that money could go much further if it was spent on education. This month, the Department of Education released a startling report entitled the “State and Local Expenditures on Corrections and Education.” In the report, the DOE finds that from 1979 to 2013, public education expenditures increased by 107% while state and local corrections expenditures increased by 324%. While we definitely still spend more money on education in total, the proportional increase is definitely cause for concern. This is in conjunction with a dramatic increase in incarceration rates, while also interacting with a fairly stagnant enrollment rate. For the record, 16 states had a 150 or more percentage point difference in percent change between state and local corrections current expenditures per capita and educational current expenditures per pupil. Wyoming currently leads with the largest difference.

As many of us know, funding is hard to come by, yet the United States is dramatically increasing not only the incarceration of the population, but the economy to support to it. Perhaps this new Second Chance program can change that. Perhaps if we can provide new avenues for education and the economy to support more students attending institutions of higher learning, we can switch the country to favor education over incarceration.

How you can help:

As we all know, language is powerful. As a prison reform advocate, I am extremely sensitive to stigmatizing language and I encourage you to avoid using certain terms. Words such as convict, inmate, felon, probationer, or parolee carry institutionalized stigma that can make students uncomfortable. Try to use terms that humanize your students: formerly incarcerated individual, individuals on parole, etc.

Reserve judgments. If a student makes it to your office, chances are they have already battled numerous obstacles just to be there. Formerly incarcerated individuals often have significant barriers to employment, transportation, housing, and admission to college in general. If they make it onto campus, it is not our place to judge them or their past. Remember, there are often societal reasons for incarceration…it is not always about a specific incident or crime, but instead a systemic persecution of individuals and areas that leads to incarceration.

Be open and welcoming. Out of all the students I have worked with in my higher education career, the students in prisons have been the most dedicated and driven in regards to their education. They value it. They need it. They want it. They are hungry for knowledge. If you open yourself and your office to these students, you might be surprised at how involved they become. Due to the hardships these individuals have had to overcome, they are looking for something welcoming. We can be the doors!

Second Chance Pell

67 colleges and universities have selected to participate in the Second Chance Pell pilot program. This is an incredible first step in ensuring previously incarcerated individuals can afford college. In its entirety, the institutions are:

  1. Alvin Community College, Texas
  2. Anne Arundel Community College, Maryland
  3. Arkansas State University – Newport, Arkansas
  4. Ashland University, Ohio
  5. Asnuntuck Community College, Connecticut
  6. Auburn University, Alabama
  7. Bard College, New York
  8. Bennington College, Vermont
  9. Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania
  10. Calhoun Community College, Alabama
  11. California State University, Los Angeles, California
  12. Cedar Valley College, Texas
  13. Centralia College, Washington
  14. Chaffey Community College, California
  15. Chemeketa Community College, Oregon
  16. Clarendon College, Texas
  17. Columbia College, California
  18. Connors State College, Oklahoma
  19. Cuesta College, California
  20. CUNY Hostos Community College, New York
  21. CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York
  22. Danville Community College, Virginia
  23. Delta College, Michigan
  24. Florida Gateway College, Florida
  25. Fond du Lac Tribal & Community College, Minnesota
  26. Glenville State College, West Virginia
  27. Goucher College, Maryland
  28. Holy Cross College, Indiana
  29. Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania
  30. Ingram State Technical College, Alabama
  31. Iowa Central Community College, Iowa
  32. Jackson College, Michigan
  33. Lamar State College – Port Arthur, Texas
  34. Langston College, Oklahoma
  35. Lee College, Texas
  36. Lehigh Carbon Community College, Pennsylvania
  37. Marymount Manhattan College, New York
  38. Mercy College, New York
  39. Metropolitan Community College, Nebraska
  40. Middlesex Community College, Connecticut
  41. Milwaukee Area Technical College, Wisconsin
  42. Mott Community College, Michigan
  43. Mount Wachusett Community College, Massachusetts
  44. Mountain View College, Texas
  45. North Country Community College, New York
  46. North Park University, Illinois
  47. Northeastern Technical College, South Carolina
  48. Nyack College, New York
  49. Pine Technical & Community College, Minnesota
  50. Quinebaug Valley Community College, Connecticut
  51. Rappahannock Community College, Virginia
  52. Roosevelt University, Illinois
  53. Rutgers University, New Jersey
  54. Seattle Central Community College, Washington
  55. Shorter College, Arkansas
  56. South Central College, Minnesota
  57. Southwest Texas Junior College, Texas
  58. Southwestern Community College, California
  59. Tacoma Community College, Washington
  60. Three Rivers Community College, Connecticut
  61. Tulsa Community College, Oklahoma
  62. University of Baltimore, Maryland
  63. University of Houston – Clear Lake, Texas
  64. University of Maine – Augusta, Maine
  65. Villanova University, Pennsylvania
  66. Wiley College, Texas
  67. Wor-Wic Community College, Maryland

While this is a wonderful start, I am disappointed to see such a lack of four-year institutions and not a single institution from Louisiana, which leads the nation in incarceration.