ReEntry and Education, Part 1

Recommendations for colleges wanting to help returning students

With the return of Pell for incarcerated students, the stampede of colleges trying to set up programming for prison education and/or reentry is in full swing. Most of the prison education work has been carried by community colleges for the last 25-30 years, but the landscape is changing quickly, and new arrivals to the field are discovering that gaining access to teach inside is not an easy-breezy endeavor. I’m also hearing that colleges (or individual faculty) are interested in attracting returning students to their campuses – an even newer idea, with even less information available.

It is clear that what information exists about starting programs inside facilities is scarce, especially in understanding how to fit together myriad disparate, unrelated pieces.  This can be frustrating, but the unique nature of carceral facilities combined with (until recently) lack of public interest, isolation, time constraints, and the real but invisible threat of losing access has created an effective barrier to knowledge sharing.

Free organizations, including community colleges and universities, rarely have any line of sight into carceral systems unless they are already established education providers, and even long-established providers have to be reapproved according to new Pell requirements.  Those who are providing services spend any time not teaching or navigating the correctional labyrinth trying to keep their programs up and running.  There is also a very real consideration that exposing anything about the inner workings of a carceral facility could result in program closure, or reduced access to students.

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All of this is by design, as carceral institutions are created to be black boxes. They are intended to keep what is inside, inside, and what is outside from even being interested in what is inside. As De Dominic notes in his article, and I note in Ch 4 of my book, each institution is its own world, and has its own particular requirements to gain and maintain access.  I mention all of this as a sort of reassurance – if you are struggling with getting educational programming into a facility, don’t give up.  It is not an easy task but the difficulty is not because of you, it is how systems protect themselves from outside influences.

If you haven’t already found them, there are a bare handful of resources available:  the Inside Out program at Temple University, articles here (college focus), here (college focus), & here (corrections admin focus), and this book (focus more on teaching than program setup but an excellent resource).  There are also some technical assistance programs in the works, so keep an eye out for funding announcements from the Alliance for Higher Ed in Prison, Ascendium, and Mellon (NOTE – I don’t have any formal affiliation with any of these entities).

Unfortunately, none of these resources offer a close look at how to transition people from education inside of prison or jail onto a free college campus.  The organizations/programs I am aware of who have been involved in this specific work for a continual, sustained amount of time are Project Rebound (separate programs operate on separate campuses), Rising Scholars and Underground Scholars, NJ STEP, and the Washington state navigators (no website). There may be others, but these are the most established and longest running I know.

In some ways, establishing a pathway for people returning to education after incarceration aligns well with college pathways for other student populations, especially first generation and low income people, both groups that overlap with Black and Indigenous populations, and people with disabilities.  Many of the best practices that have worked well for these folks can be applied to building programs and pathways for returning students.  There are also some considerations for setting up a program and pipeline that I’ll address in upcoming posts, so stay tuned.

Whether you are trying to set up something on a free or carceral campus, know that you are beginning a challenging journey.  Everyone deserves access to education and it is our responsibility to do everything we can to hold open that door, or build a door where one doesn’t exist.  On my journey, I’ve been gifted with pieces of advice that help me keep going, and now I’m gifting them to you:

This is a complex, long-term problem.

Your efforts are absolutely needed, but your wellbeing and ability to sustain the work requires that you manage your expectations – of yourself and all these organizations and systems.  Celebrate the smallest success, debrief setbacks immediately, and keep your eyes on the prize – getting students access to education.

Systems protect themselves.

A lot of what you will encounter is not personal, it is just the nature of a system of harm and punishment, designed to be inaccessible to anyone outside. You will get more done if you can find champions inside the system who have decision-making power, so keep an eye out and cultivate those connections. Ask a lot of questions up front – use your newness as a way to map the relationships and connections you need to navigate.

Get used to hearing ‘no’.

It will be the first response from the carceral system, and possibly from your college. Carceral systems are built on “no” and it’s not about you. Community organizations will say ‘yes’ but may not have the resources to offer extensive support.  A large part of your work will be to share your vision with people in a way they can understand and connect to their work, and even then, they may still say ‘no.’  Not everyone will share your enthusiasm, so treasure the people who do and be gracious with people who don’t.

You have to hold the vision AND create the plan to implement.

No one is going to offer to do this for you, although you absolutely should ask for the help you need. Don’t be discouraged if you feel like you aren’t making progress, you are an individual trying to work a systemic problem and it just takes time. Miriam Kaba reminds us that change doesn’t happen on our timeline, movement doesn’t happen on our timeline. Don’t give up.  Get connected to other people involved in the work of higher ed in prison, abolition, and transformative justice. This is community work, so don’t try to do it alone.

Don’t give up hope, don’t lose heart.

When we work for the liberation of other people, we also free ourselves. We are also be working to right generational wrongs, and that requires we learn and strengthen our own capacity to be present with pain, ours and others’. Liberation and justice and love are always worth fighting for, worth braving the unknown, worth our efforts to change and grow. Keep in your mind and heart that how we are as individuals reverberates upward and outward – in all directions – and into the collective.

From Emergent Strategy:  “How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale.  The patterns of the universe repeat at scale.  There is a structural echo that suggests two things:  one, that there are shapes and patterns fundamental to our universe, and two, that what we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale.” (2017, p 52)

From adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy:  “How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale.  The patterns of the universe repeat at scale.  There is a structural echo that suggests two things:  one, that there are shapes and patterns fundamental to our universe, and two, that what we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale.” (2017, p 52)

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