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In-prison college does more than transform prisoners into serious students. It offers hope, and it alters the trajectories of prisoners’ lives.” Dr. Gary K. Michelson

Many people can relate to the experience of having a stroke of brilliance over lunch with a friend, but few of us act on an idea that has the potential to transform the lives of over two million people. That, however, is what happened to the late John Linton and Dr. Lois Davis as they contemplated what needed to happen next in the field of in-prison postsecondary education over lunch in Maryland. 

“These [higher educational] programs should be a partnership, an equal partnership between colleges and prisons…they’re bringing together two very different bureaucracies with different missions, visions, and values to establish these programs; thus, it requires an agreement on goals, the commitment of resources, and a clear set of expectations,” Dr. Davis, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation said, recalling John’s view. 

In addition to the need to approach these programs as a partnership, John identified a gap in the field: Many resources existed for colleges to implement in-prison programs, few resources were available for corrections officials to implement or support such programs. That is how “What Corrections Officials Need to Know to Partner with Colleges to Implement College Programs in Prisons” was born, a Michelson Spark Grant–funded guide.

On September 16, 2021, the Michelson 20MM Foundation and the RAND Corporation hosted a panel of diverse experts in the field who discussed RAND’s guide and shared the experience of government, corrections officials, higher education professionals, and researchers. 

The Landscape

Dr. Davis began the event by underlining the importance of a degree in today’s economy and by providing a common understanding of the history and landscape. Six years ago, in 2015, the Department of Education implemented the Second Chance Pell Experimental Initiative, which provided grants to colleges in 42 states. Second Chance Pell was the first time since 1994 that Pell Grants could be used to help pay for in-prison college programs by colleges that participated in this initiative. Importantly, at the end of 2020, Congress reinstated Pell Grants eligibility for all incarcerated students in every state. This is expected to spur the expansion of higher education programs in prison.

Pell Grant reinstatement presents tremendous Return On Investment (ROI) for taxpayers, while simultaneously increasing public safety and improving the lives of formerly incarcerated individuals. The RAND Corporation found that those who participate in educational programs while in prison experience a recidivism rate that is 13 percentage points lower than those who do not pursue an education. Furthermore, those who participate in college programs were found to be half as likely to recidivate. 

Although Congress voted on Pell Grant reinstatement in December 2020, Sean Addie, Director of Correctional Education at the U.S. Department of Education, noted that the Department of Education will begin implementation by July 1, 2023, so as to allow sufficient time to ensure the foundation is in place for its maximum effectiveness. “In less than two years, incarcerated students will be able to access Pell Grants, pursue postsecondary education, and improve their lives and their families’ lives in their communities,” Sean enthusiastically stated.

The Opportunity for Corrections Officials 

Heather Gay, education manager at the Michigan Department of Corrections, has been a pioneer of implementing educational programs in prisons, and she shared her three greatest lessons learned throughout the process: identify a liaison, collect data, and communicate. By identifying a liaison that is familiar with corrections and education, leadership on both sides of the partnership will have a champion and supporter. As corrections and higher education determine the type of program to implement and assess its effectiveness post-implementation, accessing and analyzing data is important. Finally, establishing and maintaining active lines of communication between both parties will support student success, while simultaneously making the practitioners’ jobs easier.

Lessons Learned from the College’s Perspective

On the educational side, Todd Butler, Dean of Jackson College, has worked with Heather for eight years as they increased access to higher education programs in Michigan’s prisons. Looking back on their experience, Todd highlighted the need for patience on both sides of the aisle because corrections and colleges fundamentally work in different worlds. He encouraged corrections officials to explain why they may have rules and policies that impact the faculty and staff members, while also encouraging college administrators and faculty members to ask questions. Once the program is in place, “you’re going to start seeing performance changes in your incarcerated populations,” who will re-enter society as “leaders of change,” Todd noted.

Lessons Learned in California

California is uniquely positioned to harness the power of Pell Grant reinstatement due to the Master Plan for Higher Education and state-based legislation. Carroll Seron, associate director of University of California, Irvine LIFTED and Professor Emerita of Criminology, Law & Society, and her colleagues are building off of California’s Master Plan and the Governor’s 2014 legislation that allocated resources for community colleges to offer in-person prison education. This creates the potential for incarcerated students to earn an Associate of Arts (A.A.) degree that meets requirements to transfer to a four-year University of California or California State University degree program. UCI LIFTED, which is supported by a Michelson Spark Grant, stands for Leveraging Inspiring Futures Through Educational Degrees. “A degree translates into concrete human capital, and it mitigates the stigma of a criminal record…. No one can take your degree away from you,” Carroll stated. 

The Importance of High-Quality Programs

In closing, as the news broke of Pell Grant reinstatement last year, many advocates and experts called for high-quality programs in prison. Dr. Davis asked the panel what high-quality programs mean to them, considering their varied perspectives. Carroll touched on the exciting opportunity presented by teaching UCI classes with students in-residence in prisons so they may learn from each others’ diverse backgrounds. “One thing that has to happen when you’re talking about high quality is it has to start with the student,” Heather said. She also encouraged practitioners to ensure the educational opportunities are personal and in line with the student’s interests, aptitude, and goals. Todd believes that high-quality education begins with creating a community of scholars, equipping the students with the tools and training needed to conduct quality research that leverages tools and information with which they may be unfamiliar. 

If you would like to learn more, we invite you to view the recording, read the full transcript, and access additional resources mentioned during the event. 

In loving memory of John Linton, 1947 – 2019.

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.