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'Prison Saved My Life': Utah Inmates Seeing New Horizons With College Coursework

Woman in prison uniform sits in a classroom.
Rocio Hernandez / KUER
The University of Utah's Prison Education Project is bringing onsite college-level instruction to male and female inmates held at the Utah State Prison. The program currently has about 27 students.

Robin Radcliff has her strategies to deal with distractions when she needs to study for her college-level classes: earplugs and headphones to muffle whatever clatter is happening around her.

But the noises Radcliff needs to drown out aren’t the typical loud dorm mates. They are her cell mates and the other incarcerated women at the Timpanogos Women’s Facility in Draper, where Radcliff is enrolled in the University of Utah Prison Education Project.

“You have to get creative to find a quiet study place while living behind bars,” she said. 

Dr. Erin Castro, the program’s director and co-founder, said her team began offering on-site programming in 2017. After starting with an enrollment of about 18, the program has slowly grown to 27 male and female students serving sentences for crimes ranging from kidnapping to homicide. The program is free to attend.

“As the public flagship institution, our role is to serve our state. It’s to serve our community,” Castro said. “We either believe that incarcerated people are part of our community or we don’t. And for far too long we have believed that they’re not.”

This movement to expand access to higher education in Utah prisons comes as federal lawmakers are weighing criminal justice reform. One such policy that passed last year was the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person — or First Step Act. It allowed for early release of some prisoners and provided funds for skill-building, education and vocational training. Now U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is hoping to give incarcerated people another resource — access to federal Pell Grants. 

Woman teaches in front of a projected image.
Credit Rocio Hernandez / KUER
Instructor Marta Iversen teaches her students about electroencephalograms, a test which measures brain activity. Iversen and the rest of the University of Utah's Prison Education Project faculty work on a volunteer basis.

Reviving Interest

Utah State and Brigham Young universities both used to offer college-level instruction in Utah prisons, Castro said. But those programs fizzled out. Today, only Salt Lake Community College and the University of Utah offer on-site college classes. 

“So we know there’s an interest and so what I am hoping that UPEP does is it revives that interest,” Castro said. 

This semester, the program is offering a gender and social change course at the Wasatch facility and a neuroscience course at the Timpanogos facility. 

Radcliff, 61, who is enrolled in the neuroscience class, said she didn’t have access to higher education until she was incarcerated almost three decades ago.

“I’m not the same person I was 28 years ago when I committed my crime,” Radcliff said. “I am not the same person I was last week because I’ve learned since then new tools. I’ve learned new facets of education. I’ve learned about new people, more diverse cultures. 

“So I’m grateful. Prison saved my life.”

Another student, Joy Adams, 45, said in an interview earlier this fall that the classes give her something productive to do, and she enjoys learning. 

“I like also to call my family and tell my daughter and my mother, ‘I’m taking this class. Can you believe it? I’m in neuroscience right now. And they get really excited,’” Adams said. 

Three women in prison uniforms sit in a classroom.
Credit Rocio Hernandez / KUER
Students Tisha Morley, Ferosa Bluff and Marina Navarro review material from their neuroscience class. The students are learning about brain functions, and how the mind is affected by psychiatric disorders and psychoactive drugs.

Adams and Radcliff are taking on complex subjects in neuroscience class, but their college transcript won’t reflect what they’ve learned. That’s because the program only offers noncredit classes — for now. 

Castro said they want the program to become credit bearing, meaning students will be able to get college credit for the program’s courses, but it comes down to a lack of support and funding. Unlike its counterpart at Salt Lake Community College, which is a degree-granting program, the university program does not receive state funding. 

“Without some institutional sponsorship and some serious tuition subsidies, we would need a significant amount of money to get started,” Castro said. 

Right now, each class costs about $8,000 to run. Castro said they are able to keep costs down because everyone on the program team works as a volunteer. The program also receives support from community donors. 

“We tell this to the students a lot: ’The pens you are using, the paper you are using, you know, people believe in this work and they believe that you should have the right to this education,’” Castro said. 

But Castro knows this funding model is not sustainable. 

“We need a college or university in the state to either subsidize tuition or to partner with other institutions to run a pilot program that would probably be at a loss for three years,” she said. 

These kinds of collaborations to provide higher education in prisons are already happening in a host of states, including New York, California, Washington and Illinois, Castro said. She thinks the program has the potential to bring other Utah institutions into the fold. 

Prison silhouetted by sunset.
Credit Rocio Hernandez / KUER
The University of Utah's Prison Education Project began offering onsite programming at the Timpanogos Women's Correctional Facility in Draper in 2017. Program Director and Co-Founder Erin Castro said the classes are just as challenging as the ones that take place on the University of Utah campus.
Ripe For Reform

Mike Lee, Utah’s senior senator, has also been thinking about the barriers that inmates face when accessing higher education. 

He’s currently co-sponsoring a bill that would restore access to federal Pell Grants — money that helps students pay for college — to people in prison. Access to those federal funds was taken away from incarcerated people in the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill. Lee said he believes attitudes have changed since then. 

His bill the Restoring Education And Learning Act of 2019, or REAL Act, is currently at a standstill, but Lee said he’s optimistic it will gain traction because of the bipartisan support a recently passed criminal justice reform lawreceived. 

“(I’ve) never met any American who wouldn’t rather see a lower crime rate particular among those who have previously served time in prison,” Lee said. “That’s good for everyone.” 

Studies from research groups such as the RAND Corporation and the Vera Institute of Justice show that when incarcerated people have access to educational opportunities, their recidivism rates tend to go down. 

But Mary Gould, executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, a national network of prison education providers, said thinking of recidivism as the only or primary outcome of prison education can be problematic. 

That kind of mindset can undermine the broader outcomes of higher education and create an underclass or secondary class of students, she said.

“For students on the outside, recidivism never comes into the equation when we are talking about the benefits, the outcomes, the reasons for higher education,” Gould said.

Two women in prison uniforms read coursework.
Credit Rocio Hernandez / KUER
Students Ferosa Bluff, left, and Marina Navarro, right, are reviewing information from a recent neuroscience class offered by the University of Utah's Prison Education Project. The program is available at no cost to students.
New Heights

For student Robin Radcliff, prison has opened doors to educational opportunities she didn’t have before. During her years in prison, Radcliff said she’s earned a GED and two associate of arts degrees. Now, she’s excited to be taking on new educational challenges through the university-level classes. 

“If you give us the opportunity, we can make a difference because we’ve seen the lowest levels of our lives and to aspire to heights that we have never seen before and we can now see,” she said. 

Joy Adams had to drop the neuroscience class. But before doing so, Adams — who identifies as an African American and Navajo woman — said she is still hoping to use the knowledge she’s learned in her college courses for the life she hopes to have after prison. 

“We want to build a youth center, my family does, and I would be in charge of teaching life skills classes,” she said. “So I’m trying to gain as much knowledge as I can about how I can go back to the reservation and teach my people everything that I’ve learned. That’s my goal.”

Rocio is coming to KUER after spending most of her life under the blistering Las Vegas sun and later Phoenix. She earned bachelor’s degrees in journalism and Spanish at the University of Nevada, Reno. She did brief stints at The Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Reno Public Radio. She enjoys wandering through life with her husband and their toy poodle.
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