College Behind Bars
One man’s struggle to earn a degree while incarcerated shows how far tough-on-crime policies go to prevent prisoners from having a second chance.
November 19, 2019
Nov 19, 2019
24 Min read time
One man’s struggle to earn a degree while incarcerated shows how far tough-on-crime policies go to prevent prisoners from having a second chance.
At 3:00 a.m. on October 2, 2003, while my University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee classmates rested for the next day of their sophomore year, I was on my way to prison, sentenced to seventeen years for shooting a fellow teen who had robbed me in a drug deal. Fifteen years and eight schools later, I completed my bachelor’s in business administration. Along the way, I experienced the incompetence, indifference, intimidation, and lack of financial assistance incarcerated students face.
It was not always difficult to receive an education while imprisoned. Then, politicians sought to pander to voters, primarily white voters, through tough-on-crime one-upmanship.
It was not always difficult to receive an education while imprisoned. In fact, not long before I went to prison, it was encouraged. During the late nineteenth century, spurred by a pioneering program at the Elmira Reformatory in New York, education came to occupy a key position in the prison reform movement. By the 1930s, almost every prison in the country offered some type of education, with the idea that edification and discipline would reduce recidivism. In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice called for a substantial boost in training and staffing for academic programs in prisons nationwide; what came to be called Pell Grants were made available to incarcerated students and quickly fostered hundreds of new college programs taught inside prisons.
Then, with the collapse of the Great Society and a dramatic uptick in urban crime, politicians sought to pander to voters, primarily white voters, through tough-on-crime one-upmanship, from President Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs to Massachusetts governor William Weld’s promise to deemphasize rehabilitation and reintroduce incarcerated people to “the joys of busting rocks.” Taxpayer money spent on college degrees for “criminals” was possibly the easiest target of all. In 1988 Congress revoked Pell eligibility for those convicted of possessing or trafficking drugs. In 1992 it revoked eligibility for those with no possibility of release. Finally, in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which—among other structural mass-incarceration measures Clinton and the Democrats now claim to regret—revoked Pell eligibility for anyone incarcerated. Outcome: the less than .6 percent of Pell funding going to incarcerated students evaporated, and not one additional grant went to non-incarcerated students since, by law, no one eligible was being rejected in the first place. Many states followed suit by making prisoners ineligible for state educational funding as.
In less than two years, the number of higher education programs in prisons went from an estimated 772 to fewer than a dozen. Meanwhile, studies have continued to find higher education to be one of the most effective ways to combat recidivism: higher education in prison correlates with a 43 percent reduction in recidivism, and every dollar invested in it saves five in future corrections costs—not to mention the positive impact on in-prison behavior and the savings on public subsidies for people struggling to find jobs upon release.
After the post-1994 decimation of higher education in prisons, private benefactors, volunteer teachers, and corrections officials initiated a slow grassroots effort to regrow in-prison college programs. Some of the standouts include the Prison University Project in San Quentin, California; the Bard Prison Initiative, now available in six New York prisons; Hudson Link, now available in six other New York prisons; and a Texas reimbursement program in which incarcerated students pay back the cost of their courses upon release. By 2004, a study of the federal prison system and forty-five states found that the percentage of incarcerated people enrolled in higher education had returned to pre-1994 levels. However, 89 percent of those were in just 15 prison systems and, because the primary funding for higher education in prison was the Incarcerated Youth Offender block grant, most were under 25 years old. Furthermore, 62 percent were in vocational programs, which are often of poor quality and participation is not necessarily voluntary or enthusiastic. Basically, an almost entirely chance-based system of haves and have-nots was created among the forgotten.
• • •
Studies have continued to find higher education in prison to be one of the most effective ways to combat recidivism: it correlates with a 43 percent reduction in recidivism.
Growing up, I didn’t think I would ever be interested in college beyond the parties and basketball games. I viewed formal education as an overpriced, meandering path to knowledge and skills I could better learn on my own. I only applied to UW-Milwaukee because one of the few adults I respected told me he regretted not going before the responsibilities of adulthood piled up. In prison, I remained at first apathetic toward earning a degree: in my wealth of free time, I studied any topic that struck my fancy and would move on as soon as I got bored. Eventually, though, my aunt Kathy, a Spanish teacher, awoke my interest with her pro-college enthusiasm and offered to pay for several courses a year. Her husband, Mike, an English teacher, agreed to handle the logistics and Grandma soon began chipping in funds, as well.
We researched options—me with the few school catalogs in the prison’s library; my mom and Uncle Mike online—and found no government funding I was eligible for and only a couple schools with degree programs I could complete via written correspondence alone. Most schools offered accredited courses I could transfer. With limited options, I began Introductory Spanish in 2007 through UW-Madison and then enrolled in a liberal arts degree program at Ohio University specifically for incarcerated individuals.
Dodge Correctional Institution, where I spent the first six years of my sentence, an hour from home, only allowed computer access for legal research (that is the minimum required by law). As a result, all eight courses I took there were strictly paper and pencil. Other than the librarian acting as my proctor (nothing more than signing a form, putting me somewhere prison-quiet, and checking every hour or so to say, “How we doin’?”) the institution offered no support. It was like a second freshman year: little direction or pressure and fairly unchallenging material.
In May 2010, I was transferred to Stanley Correctional Institution, four hours from home. Stanley had an education department that included seven teachers and a guidance counselor; two vocational programs; a partnership with the state’s largest tech school offering general education courses for ten dollars to guys within seven years of release; a twenty-seat computer lab with Microsoft Office Suite (albeit 2003) and three-fifths of the Rosetta Stone program for Spanish; CDs and tapes for learning other languages; a self-paced typing program, a copy of The Prisoner’s Guerilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the United States and Canada; and permission for correspondence students to spend thirty extra hours a week in the computer lab—on top of the two hours everyone got every week day.
After Pell grant access was terminated for incarcerated students, Wisconsin remained one of the few states to continue offering state funding (despite also passing some of the strictest, and now most-enduring, “Truth In Sentencing” laws, practically banning parole). I learned from other students during my first few weeks at Stanley that I was eligible to receive financial aid through the Wisconsin Higher Education Grant. However, to receive the state grant, I had to attend a Wisconsin school with a correspondence degree program. I was told that, because of this restriction, UW-Platteville’s business program was my only option. The state grant covered a little more than half of the roughly $2,200 price of the required two-course minimum plus books. On top of that, the courses I had taken through Ohio’s liberal arts program transferred poorly to Platteville’s business program. I was more or less starting over for the third time.
Stanley had about 10 correspondence students (in a population of 1,500). We’d give each other shit, assistance, and encouragement—in that order—and share war stories about our studies and the Department of Correction’s obtuse education policies. About half were pursuing seminary degrees, but the rest of us, all attending Platteville, also shared textbooks.
Stanley had about ten correspondence students. We’d give each other shit, assistance, and encouragement, and share war stories about the Department of Correction’s obtuse education policies.
Anyone familiar with college is familiar with the textbook racket—$100 to $300 per book, if not more. Though it is relatively easy to obtain used textbooks at a significant discount in the free world, the Wisconsin DOC only allows students to purchase used textbooks from the bookstore of the school through which we are taking the course (new books can be purchased from any vendor). These stores are not known for their deals. Fortunately, Stanley’s property department was lax on enforcing this restriction, which made it fairly easy to order books from “unauthorized vendors” as long as we had written approval from the education department to take the course and, consequently, possess the book. I also began choosing courses based on what fellow students were taking so I could borrow or buy their textbooks for cheap. Sometimes my mom (who had begun purchasing my textbooks) had to pay full price, and I would send the book home when I was done if it seemed that the online resell price would make it worth it. But often the resale price was so low as to barely cover the shipping cost, so I usually just donated my books to other students or the library. Eventually, we discovered textbook rentals, which quickly became the go-to option: $30 to $40 per book per semester. I shared this tip with other students, but thankfully they embraced it slowly and it took just before I was transferred for a staff member to catch on and close this cost-saving channel.
Despite being fortunate enough to have some government funding available to me, getting that funding could be difficult. Due to technicalities and miscommunication, I was unable to receive the state grant until my third attempt, in 2012, and by then I had missed out on at least $7,000 in financial aid over the preceding five and a half years. Then a year before I became eligible for the $10 general education courses, they were cancelled due to lack of funding.
The most frustrating cost savings and convenience to evade me, however, was the College Level Examination Program (CLEP). CLEP is widely accepted (2,900 schools) and lets people test out of general education college subjects for dirt cheap ($85 a course for CLEP). I could study on my own and order the test when ready—my ideal approach. By the time CLEP came to my attention, though, only two of its subjects matched remaining needs in my degree plan: calculus and English II. When Uncle Mike contacted the company, a representative confirmed I could take the tests in prison and he could order an English II paper test for me the following month. But when the time came to order, a different representative told him that, as of a few days prior, all tests were only available online. The next day, another representative confirmed this. Fortunately, Platteville later waived English II for me after I demonstrated sufficient command of the material with articles I wrote in the Wisconsin State Journal and the New York Times. Much later, too late, I learned CLEP never officially transitioned to online-only and still offers paper tests.
• • •
After close to four years with Platteville, I decided to transfer to Adams State University in Colorado. Adams was half the price of Platteville and would accept more of my credits than Platteville had (but they did not accept my English II waiver). They also offered every course required for their several business degree options, whereas Platteville only offered about half (I had been outsourcing with Adams, Louisiana State University, and Idaho University to take the courses Platteville did not offer). And because Adams did not have a direct partnership with the DOC, I could more easily contact the school via (unauthorized) three-way phone calls, rather than triangulate everything through the DOC or my family. I was sold. I was even able to increase my course load thanks to some financial help from old friends (most of whom still owed me money) and especially one new friend I met in prison (thank you, Buzz). This was after I unsuccessfully applied to several scholarships and solicited donations from a couple dozen foundations, clubs, and churches (a strategy I had read about other incarcerated students using).
If our personal development falls outside the scope of official DOC programming—for example, pursuing a college degree or becoming a writer—we can expect to be ignored or even punished.
This new financial aid led to one of my worst experiences, of so many, with the DOC’s indifference to our genuine (as opposed to on-paper) development. I had saved enough money to buy the full Rosetta Stone program on sale for the computer lab to replace its partial version. Upon asking for approval from headquarters, the guidance counselor informed me that not only had permission been denied, but the partial version and all the other foreign language teaching CDs and tapes were ordered removed, as well, lest they be used by us to communicate in code. But the books in the library teaching or translating foreign languages were fine, we could still buy these publications ourselves, and we could still take correspondence courses teaching a foreign language at any level of expertise.
Stanley was also the setting of the most peaceful and influential experience of my incarceration. The prison’s psychologist hired me and another guy to design and manage a coping skills program revolving around biofeedback and mindfulness (which, I was versed in as a Buddhist-ish practitioner of nearly a decade). I read numerous books and consolidated the key points into a set of packets that spoke to our incarcerated demographic; planned and sometimes ran the weekly hour-long groups; and spent countless hours listening to the struggles, fears, and painful histories of my fellow societal castaways. I don’t remember what courses I took during the two years I occupied this role (the maximum amount of time we are allowed to hold a job), but I know they were of only equal importance, at best, to the time and energy I invested in the mental health of the men, including myself, who took and will take the program.
• • •
In February 2015, I was transferred to Jackson Correctional Institution, about three hours from home, to take its culinary program to satisfy my “vocational need.” The majority of incarcerated individuals in Wisconsin are given at least one, commonly more, behavioral or substance abuse program needs by the judge or the DOC. Because I had no history of such issues, I was instead given a vocational need. I didn’t care because I enjoy learning new things and I figured it would not be too difficult to knock out a semester-long class at some point in the next seventeen years.
The Wisconsin prison system offers a variety of vocational programs that vary by facility: custodial services, culinary arts, horticulture, building maintenance and construction, cabinetry, masonry, barbering and cosmetology, welding, computer-assisted drafting, braille transcription, printing, machining, commercial baking, auto maintenance, and a handful more. About half are available at multiple facilities; the others, only at a single facility. However, because the DOC houses us based mostly on bed space and whim, we usually end up taking whatever course is offered wherever we end up with little regard for interest or aptitude. And if our personal development activities fall outside the scope of official DOC programming—for example, pursuing a college degree or becoming a writer—we can expect to be ignored or even punished in some form. Furthermore, very rarely are we allowed to take more than one vocational course, which goes against the goal of preparing us for a fast-changing world inclined to treat the formerly incarcerated prejudicially. Worst of all, incarcerated students are forced to live in chaotic, loud, sometimes abusive environments when every facility could easily pair students with cellmates and circumstances that incentivize contemplation and growth. The DOC so often seems to care more about the appearance of education than the purpose. And the Wisconsin DOC’s vocational programming is better than those of most states!
At the second stage of the selection process for the popular culinary arts program (good, free, “exclusive” food for six months will always attract captives en masse), I was rejected because I admitted I had no career interest in cooking and other candidates could benefit from it more than me. Because this was my stance on every vocational program offered by the DOC, I figured the issue was done.
The prison’s education director made me take my tests in the windowless anteroom of her office while she watched religious shows with the sound turned up.
In February 2016, after spending seven months struggling to study, write, and meditate in a minimum security temporary holding barracks inside the maximum security prison where Jeffrey Dahmer was killed, I was transferred to Oakhill Correctional Institution, an hour and twenty minutes from home. Oakhill’s educational resources slightly surpassed Stanley’s due to a gap in the prison’s Internet security settings, which allowed us to access Wikipedia and Google Maps while the staff turned a blind eye (the gap was eventually closed when the sites became too much of a distraction in class, particularly the nudity on Wikipedia).
A few weeks later, I received notice I’d been selected for the horticulture program to fulfill my vocational need. If I refused, I would be punished with room confinement from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. every weekday and removal from my job (my sole source of income for hygiene and healthy food items). This was the DOC’s new stick-and-other-stick policy to disincentivize us from rejecting our program needs.
Not long after, I ran into the horticulture instructor and learned his concern for flora didn’t extend to my blossoming. He didn’t care about my limited interest in his program, or that it would take time away from pursuing my degree. If I refused, he said I wouldn’t be allowed to continue doing correspondence courses: “You’re just gonna have to do both.” Even as a veteran of staff indifference and letter-of-the-law scapegoating, I was unbalanced by the encounter.
I scheduled an appointment with the prison’s education director and entered her office the following week with logic overwhelmingly on my side. I was hopeful because I had been impressed by the Black History Month event she’d organized and her seeming eagerness to help incarcerated students. But it was all a show. She scoffed at the claim I wouldn’t be allowed to keep doing my correspondence courses, but disagreed that my degree was more important than the horticulture program or that the former should address my vocational need. She questioned why I couldn’t do both and claimed there was nothing she could do. I had scored high on the Test of Adult Basic Education (or TABE, an SAT-like measure of basic education used widely by vocational schools and prisons) and prison administrators wanted to enroll people in the program who would pass it so its success rate would look good on paper. Her hands were tied, she said. I was speechless. When I countered that I would be a poor student because my primary focus would be my degree, she relented and said she would postpone my conscription until December, when I anticipated graduating—despite her claim mere minutes ago that she was unable to do anything. From then on, I tried hard to limit our encounters to scheduling and taking exams, which she had me do in the windowless anteroom of her office while she watched religious shows with the sound turned up.
By October I was taking three of my last four courses. Only English II remained—my white whale. President Barack Obama had just approved the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, giving three to five years of funding to collaborations between state corrections departments and sixty-seven colleges nationwide so incarcerated people could earn a free associate’s degree. Oakhill was to be one of the few participating facilities in Wisconsin and English II was expected to be one of the available courses. By November I was just waiting for the DOC to get its side together.
On December 10, I spoke to dozens of local teens about my experiences in prison as part of a panel I had been doing regularly since March. Two days later, I was placed in solitary confinement pending an investigation into my relationship with a recently fired female correctional officer. Although no solicitation, sexual activity, or exchange of contraband occurred, I was confident the DOC would exaggerate the significance of our personal—thus forbidden—conversations and transfer me to a facility where the Second Chance Pell program would not be available.
I settled in for potentially months in solitary confinement (I had been in it twice before, but only for seven and ten days). Depending on one’s mental health, the immense deprivation of “the hole” can be debilitating or revelatory—even with the insane asylum soundtrack (after two weeks, my indispensable ear plugs made from wet toilet paper had caused a painful buildup of ear wax that required medical attention and drops that came with the clueless admonishment that I “don’t do that anymore”). Every day I was grateful for my mindfulness practice and the fact that I enjoy reading and, especially, writing. I completed what I could of my final Advertising project and all the assignments for Intellectual Property Law. In between and after school work, I meditated, reacquainted myself with Pilates and yoga, got halfway through a lyrical project I’d had in mind for some time. I also edited the manuscript for a new 550-page prisoner education almanac, The Curious Convict’s Guide, which sought to improve upon the aforementioned, and now badly outdated, Prisoner’s Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the United States and Canada and other similar prison education books. And I read some germane literature I was shocked to find among the six rows of kindling on the book cart—namely, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Tempest. Forty-two days later, I was released from solitary: “no harm, no foul.” Even if something had happened between me and the fired correctional officer, a relatively new law defined me as the victim of an authority figure in a coercive environment.
When my Bachelor of Arts in business administration was announced, Aunt Kathy let out a yip.
A sign-up for the Second Chance Pell program awaited me with a meeting scheduled for mid-February. A dozen of us were called in to fill out paperwork and were told everything would start within the next couple weeks. I knew better than to believe in this tale of swift teamwork between two bureaucracies, especially when one of them was the glacial DOC. At first, I asked for a status update weekly. Then every other week. Then every month. All I got was rumors and confusion.
Every four months, Oakhill held a graduation ceremony. Unsure if I would still be there for the next graduation, the education director allowed me to participate and approved my request for two more guests so my parents, Uncle Mike, and Aunt Kathy could all attend. The day came and about forty of us filed in wearing DOC caps and gowns. When my coming-soon Bachelor of Arts in business administration was announced, Aunt Kathy let out a yip. Afterward, several staff, graduates, and their families congratulated me as everyone mingled and ate cookies. But I was unimpressed—embarrassed even. I do not feel my degree was worth the financial cost to my loved ones. The work was mostly rote and rarely difficult, and my major is not what I would have chosen. The only reason I participated in the graduation ceremony was because my mom deserved an opportunity to experience her son as other than a source of shame.
In September the memo for the Second Chance Pell program was reposted. I again went through the motions. Then more bad news: Adams State had been placed on probation by the accreditation commission. My advisor said it was just a formality, but the only way I was safe was to get my final grade for English II transferred over by December.
We started in October. The professor said I could work ahead of schedule. I finished in six days. And Adams kept its accreditation.
• • •
In the past twenty years, changing attitudes toward criminal justice and corrections sparked a rebirth of prison higher education programs, as well as novel approaches. Examples include the Prison Entrepreneurship Program in Texas and The Last Mile Works, a coding vocational now available at eleven facilities around the country and hopefully soon in Wisconsin (an effort I have been helping to organize). In addition, over the past five years, California authorized community colleges to receive funding for in-prison courses for thousands of incarcerated students; New York launched an initiative funding $7.3 million for educational programming and reentry services at seventeen facilities; a bipartisan bill to reinstate Pell eligibility for incarcerated individuals (the REAL Act) was introduced by Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Dick Durban (D-Illinois) and is receiving favorable attention; the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison was created and has become a powerful influencer and organizer for the cause; and this past May the Second Chance Pell program was extended to more colleges. Wisconsin’s incarcerated students will even be getting their own laptops soon (though no Internet, of course).
When education in prison is treated as an end in itself, rather than pushed as an “evidence-based” tool, what grows is an acceptance that incarcerated people are more than our criminal histories and possess value as humans.
The best change, though, may be the push to stop treating higher education in prison as if its potential exists solely as a tool to reduce recidivism. While the dramatic correlation between prison education and decreased recidivism—more than 40 percent—is a powerful political tool, it is also a stumbling block. Studies of the effects of prison higher education on recidivism are rife with flaws, such as what definition of recidivism to use (arrest, reincarceration, or new crime) and how many courses or credits must a formerly incarcerated person have taken to be considered for the study. As a result, they are not the strongest support for an argument about the need for education in prison. It is also difficult to design a study that puts to rest the contention that the apparent reduction in recidivism in those who pursue higher education while incarcerated is simply evidence of a self-selection bias—in other words, that those who pursue and especially complete college degrees while incarcerated are the very ones unlikely to return to prison anyways.
Sean Pica, director of Hudson Link (the in-prison college program in New York), argues that the most helpful response to all of these arguments is, “Who gives a fuck?” In other words, when education in prison is treated as an end in itself, rather than pushed as an “evidence-based” tool, what grows is an acceptance of the truth that incarcerated people are more than our criminal histories and possess value as humans. Of course all education is provided for a purpose. Educators dedicate their lives to teaching not only because students are humans with value, but to produce people who contribute to society. Despite my dissatisfaction with my degree, I know it made me a more rounded person and will ease my reintegration. But any prison program—let alone one for higher education—designed with the singular goal of reducing recidivism will only be partially successful, at best.
In arguably no other sector of society are counterproductivity and waste as encouraged as they are in corrections. We can do better, and in fact, the means to do so are already in place. Prisons nationwide contain honor living areas for select individuals based primarily on conduct and seniority. These could be so much more than attaboy programs. By increasing occupancy for these spaces and making it a requirement that residents participate in an educational or self-improvement endeavor of their free choosing, honor living areas would better incentivize more incarcerated individuals to spend their time on activities that nurture maturity and resilience. This includes those who are never getting out: after all, selectivity is largely what ails the current approach. And all of this would require only operational changes, which corrections departments and individual prisons engage in frequently. No legislation, no referenda, no headlines, no political risk, and the negligible extra costs could be covered by fundraisers managed by the residents of these honor living areas, as currently happens in prisons across the country. By giving up (the illusion of) control over what and how we learn and focusing instead on what carceral environments promote, corrections officials and legislators could actually better achieve their anti-recidivism goals.
In 1927 Austin MacCormick, assistant director of the U.S Bureau of Prisons, stated, “If we believe in the beneficial effect of education on man in general we must believe in it for this particular group, which differs less than the layman thinks from the ordinary run of humanity.” Ninety years later, I can’t articulate it better.
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November 19, 2019
24 Min read time