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Study On Prison Education Seeks To Fill Long-Standing Gaps In Data

Woman in prison uniform sits in a classroom.
Rocio Hernandez / KUER
Less than 4% of incarcerated people in the U.S. have a college degree, according to a study from the Prison Policy Initiative.

Most inmates in-state and federal prisons have access to a high school education. But when it comes to college, not much is known about what’s available.

It’s one of the key hurdles Erin Castro is trying to overcome. She’s the co-founder of the University of Utah’s Prison Education Project and said to do that, we first need better data.

“We've known for a long time that there is a strong relationship between educational attainment and one's life chances of becoming incarcerated,” Castro said. “At this point in time, it is really difficult to answer questions about higher education in prison.”

Nationally, about 25% of inmates don’t have a high school education. Fewer than 4% have a college degree, compared to 29% of the general public, according to a study from the Prison Policy Initiative.

Along with several other researchers around the country, Castro recently released the first of a multi-part study examining the landscape of higher education opportunities across the U.S. prison system, which vary widely across the country and even within states.

The first part of the study looks into admissions, enrollment and funding for higher ed programs. Researchers surveyed 60 programs across the U.S. — not an exhaustive or representative list, but one they hope will provide some initial clues to help expand opportunity and improve the quality of the programs.

Of the programs surveyed, most are run by a college or university and offered in-person classes at prisons or jails. Only six offer primarily remote instruction, but each serve an average of 26 correctional facilities. Many facilities, Castro said, such as Utah’s Draper Prison, don’t allow online classes due to security concerns, which can limit the number of students who can enroll.

Most programs surveyed are funded through donations, the study found, though Castro said she was surprised to learn tuition is often covered by the schools themselves. Still, money remains a significant barrier.

Inmates struggle to access things like federal Pell Grants, often due to bureaucratic hurdles like filling out basic paperwork and accessing tax records. The biggest reason students drop classes is if they’re transferred to a different facility, the study found.

In Utah, inmates can take vocational courses offered by community and technical colleges, as well as a handful of college-level classes. But by and large, Castro said the majority of incarcerated people here do not have access to a degree-granting program.

Still, she’s hopeful there’s a shift underway. She said the University of Utah is launching a credit-bearing course this fall and state lawmakers recently passed a bill that would allow incarcerated youth to earn a degree.

With the U.S. spending as much as it does on keeping people locked up and dismal rates of recidivism, Castro argues the view that prisoners don’t deserve an education is no longer tenable.

“Yes, we need all sorts of treatment programming and sentence-mandated programming,” she said. “At the same time, we also need to equip people to actually be successful once they are released. Having a higher education credential can help people stay out of prison, which at this point in time is a really difficult feat.”

KUER reached out to the Utah Department of Corrections but did not receive approval for an interview.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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