Efforts are underway to create a new prison college degree program in Utah
The landscape of higher education in Utah’s prisons will soon expand.
Starting this fall, men in some correctional facilities could be taking college-level classes like statistics, anthropology and American history. They’ll also have access to practical programs in computer essentials, financial literacy and a possible coding boot camp. That’s on top of longstanding offerings in fields like automotive repair, machining and construction.
Women, who until this year have only had access to two options — culinary arts and business technology — will also soon be able to get certificates in web design, automation, robotics and horticulture.
Yet none of those classes will lead to a four-year degree. By next year, that could change.
The University of Utah’s Prison Education Project hopes to launch a new degree program in the fall of 2023. It would be the first in Utah in over a decade, following a small, but growing list of universities expanding higher education to incarcerated people across the country.
“For us, it's about more than providing a pathway that is focused on a particular job, but to kind of mirror the best work of the university, which is rigorous classwork, research, applied learning, where students are addressing the most pressing questions of our times,” said project director Andy Eisen.
Many of the details are still being worked out. As of now, Eisen envisions a small first cohort of students — around 20 — who would take classes year-round and likely earn a degree in about five years. The program would probably start in the women’s prison, in part because they currently have fewer choices.
The degree itself would be in something like communications or undergraduate studies, he said. It would cover a range of courses to equip students with fundamental skills like writing, critical thinking and leadership.
While conversations about a four-year degree for inmates have been going on since the Prison Education Project’s inception in 2016, founder Erin Castro said the timing is ripe now. That’s thanks both to the federal government’s recent expansion of Pell Grant eligibility for inmates and support from the University of Utah.
“The leadership with whom I'm working understands that we should be treating incarcerated people as students, period,” she said. “And if we are treating them as students, then they should be provided all of the kinds of resources to the extent that we're able that students on campus are allowed to and encouraged to access.”
A growing body of research shows that access to education leads to lower recidivism rates, among other benefits. But for a host of reasons — political, financial and simply building out the infrastructure — Castro said Utah’s correctional facilities have been slow to adapt.
Anndrea Parrish, director of institutional programming at the Utah Department of Corrections, is in full support of a bachelor’s degree pathway for inmates. However, staffing shortages, the recent prison move and poor data collection complicate the rollout.
Current data, for example, suggests roughly half of the state’s nearly 5,900 inmates and parolees have a high school education. But the department knows it’s missing about a third of the data it needs, and Parrish said what they do have is often inaccurate. That can make it hard to both assess and place students into existing programs, not to mention track job outcomes after release.
People who are incarcerated are also limited to certain courses based on the facility they’re in and its proximity to a local college, she said. Many get transferred to other facilities and then lose access to the classes or programs they were enrolled in.
Parrish said the department is working on several changes to improve both data collection and testing so that academic skills and outcomes can be more accurately assessed. It’s also hiring a former educator — someone with teaching expertise — to oversee prison education. Until now, the people who ran the programs often lacked formal training.
“I do think that there is a shifting tide in favor of understanding that education is really important for reducing recidivism,” Parrish said. “Historically there's been a lot of opposition among the public about paying for education for incarcerated people, but hopefully the conversation is moving toward one of ‘we're going to be paying for them regardless, let's equip them with the education and skills necessary to help them become employed and successful returning citizens.’ ”